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‘Tigers’ fuels Asian tuner trend on Great White Way

Big-budget prod'n aims to takeoff April 2007

NEW YORK — Jukebox musicals are so five minutes ago. The next hot trend in Rialto tuners? Asia.

Producer Don Gregory (“The Belle of Amherst”) will shepherd to Broadway a new $20 million musical about the Flying Tigers, the volunteer American air guard that helped defend China from the Japanese during World War II. Target takeoff: April 2007.

“Flying Tigers” joins an unexpectedly crowded field of proposed projects with roots in the Far East. Chicago-based Elephant Eye Theatricals plans a 2008 offering based on the life of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, with book writer David Henry Hwang and helmer Matthew Warchus already attached, and the tantalizing possibility of David Bowie providing the music.

Bob and Harvey Weinstein, meanwhile, have set their sights on a martial arts legit spectacle based on the novels that yielded Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

With “Flying Tigers,” Gregory aims to create a big-budget extravaganza that includes a cast of 25-30, an environmental set and dogfight sequences. Hence the $20 million pricetag.

“I arrived at that number myself,” Gregory says. “I’m not dealing with guys who take shortcuts, and I want to have a good, strong reserve so I’ve got some fighting money.” He estimates $3 million for the set and a $4 million reserve.

Roger Anderson (“Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical”) will write the music, with Playbill.com editor Kenneth Jones contributing lyrics. William Luce (“The Belle of Amherst”) will write the book.

Walter Painter, choreographer of “City of Angels,” will direct and choreograph. The design team includes Broadway vets Robin Wagner (set), William Ivey Long (costumes) and Ken Billington (lights).

The show will be “primarily funded through sponsorship from corporations doing business in China, and also through private sources,” says co-producer Jeffrey Greene, exec director of the Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation.

“It’s also being made with the direct cooperation of Yunan province and the approval of certain ministries in the Chinese government,” he adds.

Although work on the show has not yet begun in earnest, right now the plan is to focus the narrative on the events that took place from 1940-42. The story will include the Flying Tiger recruitment process as well as a fictional romance between a Chinese doctor and an American nurse.

Gregory envisions Gen. Claire L. Chennault, the man who formed the Tigers, as the tuner’s lead. “I’m going to go after Tom Wopat to play him,” he says.

“It’s a period that has been overlooked by historians and writers on both the left and the right,” Greene says. He has published a book in China about the Flying Tigers and co-written and co-produced a documentary for Chinese TV on the subject. Two years ago, he produced a performance by a Chinese music ensemble that played around the U.S.

Prompted by the success of that tour, as well as Greene’s work with the foundation, officials in the Chinese government suggested a musical set during World War II. Once Greene had settled on the history of the Flying Tigers, he enlisted Gregory.

From Broadway, the producers hope to take the show to China.

First, though, they need to stake out a spot on the Great White Way. “I need a musical house in New York, and everything has a hit in it,” Gregory says.

Gregory also is anxious to mark territory for “Flying Tigers” so that it stands out from the impending pack of Orient-influenced musicals. “I am eager to plant my flag,” he says.

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