Prod'n is first Western musical to play China

SHANGHAI — The barricades are down — in every sense of the word.

Cameron Mackintosh brought “Les Miserables” to this city’s Grand Theater June 22 for a 17-performance run, marking the first time a full production of a Western musical has played in China.

Interest throughout the city has been intense, and the $150 top price for tickets hasn’t proved to be a deterrent.

The audience that filled the 1,800-seat theater gave the tuner a wildly enthusiastic response, stopping the show with cheers for Colm Wilkinson’s rendition of “Bring Him Home,” and giving a standing ovation at the end for the cast, producer Mackintosh and composers Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.

The reaction is particularly remarkable, since Shanghai audiences are known for their reticence. Christopher Hum, the British ambassador whose career in China spans 30 years, said, “I have never seen a reaction like this, never.”

The production was sung entirely in English, with Chinese supertitles.

The cast consisted mostly of the U.S. touring production, but with the addition of Wilkinson (the original Valjean), as well as Michael McCarthy and Carmen Cusack from London, Ma-Anne Dionisio from Toronto and Christopher Mark Chapman, Peter Lockyer and Sandra Turley from Broadway.

Mackintosh has been trying for years to bring a show to China, but political red tape had always gotten in his way.

Then management of the Grand Theater got the Chinese government to contact Great Britain’s Dept. for Culture, requesting that “Les Miserables” come to Shanghai for several reasons: The size and scope of the production could showcase the facility, and Hugo’s novel, with its themes of revolution and personal struggle, has always been popular in China.

There is also a concerted effort to lure Westerners to Shanghai. Luxury hotels are springing up, catering to Western execs. Shanghai wants to create the image that it’s a sophisticated, exciting environment, friendly to European and North American businesses.

Having a show such as “Les Miz” is part of that image. Ye Zhikang, head of the Grand Theater, said, “This opens one more window on the West. I believe that it will go a long way toward our eventual goal — the production of musicals in China.”

That’s Mackintosh’s goal as well. Mackintosh’s office and the Grand Theater refuse to reveal the cost of the Shanghai engagement, but a figure of $2 million has been circulated, and Mackintosh admits to $600,000 for equipment costs. The potential revenue for the show during its Shanghai run is in the region of $300,000.

Mackintosh and the Grand are sharing costs, because both parties see a successful commercial future for musical theater in Shanghai. “Don’t call it a loss leader,” quips Mackintosh, “because in the end, nobody’s going to show a loss.”

During the performance, there were moments with particular resonance for the Chinese, such as the gasp of recognition that greeted the waving of the red flag in “One Day More,” or the shocked silence after the slaughter of the student revolutionaries.

Only 13 years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, that sequence hit close to home for some. Sobs were heard throughout the theater during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” with its reminder: “Here they talked of revolution/Here it was they lit the flame/Here they sang about tomorrow/And tomorrow never came.”

At a June 21 press conference packed with the Shanghai media, Schonberg admitted he has wanted to see the show here for 20 years.

“I met with some musicians here in 1982, and they told me that people in China want music about the people for the people, and that’s what ‘Les Miserables’ is.”

Mackintosh was his usual ebullient self as he said, “I’ve brought you the best cast in the world, I’ve brought you Alain and Claude-Michel. I’ve brought you everyone except Victor Hugo, and I’m sorry he couldn’t be here.”

And although it’s hard to imagine the average musical having quite the emotional impact of “Les Miserables,” the future is clear:

All singing, all dancing, all Shanghai. Just wait and see.

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