Shanghai launches local version of popular musical

The opening of “Mamma Mia!” today in Shanghai reps a key legit first for the territory: It’s the first time a major contempo tuner like “Mamma Mia!” has been staged by a local company in a new Chinese-language translation under the direction of the same creative team that put on the musical in London.

Chinese auds have already taken to Western-style musicals such as “Hairspray,” “The Lion King” and even “Mamma Mia!,” but they’ve been performed in English by touring international groups. For this new incarnation of “Mamma,” a license deal has been made with a Chinese company for the localized version — and it could form the basis for future expansion of commercial theater in China.

Broadway and West End types have eyed the Asian marketplace for years. In 2007, British producer Cameron Mackintosh announced plans to stage legendary shows such as “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon” in China, and Broadway’s Nederlander Org produced a Chinese version of “Fame” at the Central Academy of Drama after having brought “42nd Street” to China in 2009.

Local opportunities also have been seized by companies including Broadway Asia Entertainment, which books, produces and manages Asian legit productions and represents the Rodgers & Hammerstein Org’s library of titles in nations including China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia.

Still, there remains some real pioneering to do in China, according to “Mamma Mia!” producer Judy Craymer.

“There’s virtually no infrastructure for commercial musical theater, so finding the talent we needed — the actors, technicians, stage crew and musicians — proved extremely difficult,” she said. “Locating a theater to accommodate us took a long time, and even translating the lyrics into a tonal language was a major challenge.”

“Mamma Mia!” is helmed by associate director Paul Garrington, while Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ music is overseen by Martin Lowe. “Mamma Mia!” production company Littlestar negotiated the license deal with Chinese co-producer United Asia Live Entertainment Co. (UALE), the commercial wing of the Ministry of Culture.

Linking up with the government helped producers get around many of the hurdles of working in the culture arena in China.

UALE prexy Tian Yuan said the group chose “Mamma Mia!” because it had a proven track record. “It will not only give Chinese audiences an excellent show, but also bring advanced techniques and experience from abroad that will enrich Chinese culture and our ability to create our own original productions,” he said.

The government is keen to encourage the development of culture industries such as commercial theater as part of the latest Five-Year Plan, the Communist Party’s blueprint for economic development.

There have been some spectacular false starts. A couple of years ago, there was much ado about “Creative Beijing,” a sprawling complex of 32 theaters for musicals in Haidian district in the capital’s northwestern suburbs, which was dubbed “China’s Broadway” and was set to be Asia’s biggest base for the production of musicals. Little has come of it.

“They are building lots of theaters in China, but the problem is finding the products that go in them,” said David Lightbody, exec producer of the localized Chinese version of “Mamma Mia!”

The plan for “Mamma” is to tour the country for at least a year, covering major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou after Shanghai. Then it will tour more of mainland China next year before heading to Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Singapore.

Well-known Chinese thesp and warbler Tian Shui, who plays the lead role of Donna Sheridan, said the country has a long way to go before it pulls together the proper infrastructure to begin putting on its own shows.

“This is a great start for the musical in China,” she said. “I hope that one day we can also create our own original musical theater. It’s a long-term target.”

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