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Asia singing a Broadway tune

New York producers taking musicals abroad

American tuners are big in Japan. And South Korea. And China. And Broadway producers are hoping they get bigger.

Asia is gaining increasing prominence on the radar of legiters, prodded to sit up and take notice in part by the economic growth of China.

Broadway Asia Entertainment (or BAE), a 1½-year-old partnership between an Asia-centric U.S. legit org and a team of Gotham-based producers, is taking a multipronged approach to expanding biz in Asian territories.

The company’s unusually diverse m.o. sheds light on the opportunities of the market — as well as its challenges, including a still-developing foundation of Chinese venues and performing talent and major cultural differences in the very act of theatergoing.

BAE has had a busy year, with an English-language touring production of “The King and I” launching in April in Shenzhen, China; an ongoing Chinese-language production of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” that played a stint in Gotham in May; a “SpongeBob SquarePants Live!” tour that kicked off in Singapore in May; and an Asia tour of “42nd Street” starting rehearsal.

Also on the slate: “Cinderella,” starring Lea Salonga (and bowing in Salonga’s native Philippines); “Peter Pan,” starring Cathy Rigby; “The Fantasticks” in Chinese; and a sit-down production of “Hairspray” in Japan.

“Broadway is an incredibly powerful brand, particularly in foreign territories,” says Simone Genatt, co-founder of 15-year-old licensing and management org Broadway Asia Co., as well as of BAE. “Broadway means money and power and the best of the West, and it doesn’t come along with political implications. It’s dancing, it’s singing.”

Essentially a startup launched by raising $10 million, BAE, which has offices in Gotham and Shanghai, brings together BAC and the Baruch/Frankel/Routh/Viertel Group, the producers whose credits include “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Sweeney Todd.” BAC books productions in Asia, while BAE produces and manages them.

BAE isn’t the only New York org looking to Asia, and to China in particular.

In the spring, Disney Theatrical Prods. took “The Lion King” to Shanghai, and Broadway theater owners the Nederlander Org announced it’s working on an initiative to tour Rialto shows across the country.

China’s huge landmass and population rep enormous potential for Western-style musicals.

“In general, the number of musicals performed in China and their audience are both rising annually,” says Deyu Zhai of the Chinese consulate-general cultural office. “We believe more and more Chinese people will recognize musical shows.”

But the cross-cultural transit has its share of bumps.

“People are still unclear about who’s in charge from the Chinese standpoint,” says Ted Chapin, prexy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Org, the company that controls rights to tuners that have run in Asia, including “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I,” “I Love You” and “Altar Boyz” (which played an engagement in South Korea). “It’s very tricky. An enormous amount of patience is required to sift through the emerging world there.”

BAE reps the R&H Org’s library in Asian nations such as China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia. It was BAC’s successful Asia tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Sound of Music,” which played 22 cities for 18 months beginning in 2004, that prompted the formation of Broadway Asia Entertainment.

” ‘The Sound of Music’ was the first wake-up call for us that this was a market that had great appreciation for Western theater,” says Steven Baruch of Baruch/Frankel/Routh/Viertel.

But establishing a foothold in the Chinese market entails helping to lay the groundwork that would support an influx of Broadway shows.

Chinese venues that can accommodate a technically demanding Rialto tuner are far less common than in the U.S. And Chinese performers, many of whom are trained in a single discipline, often lack the triple-threat skills needed to play roles in Western shows.

Then there’s the fact that long-running shows are a foreign idea in most parts of Asia. For some in China, ticketbuying is a new concept — and there aren’t really credit card systems, either, so “it’s basically an all-cash business,” Genatt says.

BAE is working to develop the industry with musical theater academies, which are getting trial runs in three Asian cities this summer before the planned establishment of yearlong schools for performers. The company also is working on establishing local costume and scene shops.

“We’re building infrastructure,” Baruch says. “We knew there was a big learning curve, and with our investors we made it clear we are not going to profitable for a while.”

As that infrastructure strengthens, BAE aims to bring over more of its roster of titles, including “The Wizard of Oz” (in Mandarin), “Annie,” “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Legally Blonde.”

Some iconic Western musicals have a strong appeal in Asia — many Chinese people begin to learn English with the “Sound of Music” song “Do Re Me” — but further audience education and development also is on BAE’s to-do list.

“It’s going to require a lot of work, and not just from us,” says Baruch/Frankel/Routh/Viertel partner Thomas Viertel. “We see this completely as a partnership between private interests, the government and the media.”

In addition, BAE plans to augment its Western product with locally grown tuners.

“We will gradually shift to Chinese stories, told in Mandarin,” says Baruch. The company is exec producer on two new Chinese musicals, “Monkey King” and “Shanghai Rose Garden.”

Such projects, the principals of BAE hope, will further prime the market.

“China is the largest territory in Asia and the only one that has the potential to become a major market, rivaling North American touring because of the size and the number of people,” Genatt says. “But one should not take China for granted. It’s not an easy market.”

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