A showcase performance of “Fame” at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama turns into a portrait of the first generation affected by China’s one-child policy in “The Road to Fame,” Hao Wu’s documentary about the first China-Broadway collaboration. These students — simultaneously “spoiled” and under tremendous pressure, raised in relative affluence but embodying all their parents’ hopes and fears — bring different levels of emotional baggage to the desperate-to-make-it ethos belted out over the course of the show. Empathetic pic could click with assorted TV auds, including China watchers, musical-theater aficionados and connoisseurs of cross-cultural phenomena.
Though Wu never belabors the obvious parallels between the play’s school-set plot and the Chinese drama students’ own situations, he nevertheless bookends his documentary with two moments of congruence between real life and make-believe. At the opening, he films hopeful candidates anxiously scanning the acceptance list for the exclusive academy, then cuts to a scene onstage where fictional “Fame” characters rejoice in their admittance to New York’s High School of Performing Arts. (At the end, the play’s mortarboard-tossing finale also closes the Academy’s graduation performance.)
Wu’s coverage of the students’ “Fame” rehearsals is multifaceted, but what registers most palpably is the desire of these aspiring actors to get noticed by visiting pros from China’s entertainment industry. Curiously, early run-throughs are in English, the troupers thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the original material before transitioning to Mandarin translations. “A” and “B” casts are chosen, a two-tiered strategy somehow at odds with the musical’s inclusive, aspirational spirit. Wu freely intercuts between the two ensembles, sometimes even mid-song. But despite the school’s proviso that later casting changes might be made, time constraints nix any switching, and although both casts are accorded almost the same number of performances, studio recruiters only come out for the “A” team.
Wu’s emphasis on the Academy’s students as representatives of the first generation of one-child families is echoed throughout in interviews with the kids and parents. One rich boy, Zhang Xiao, matter-of-factly shows off his ritzy apartment and myriad pairs of shoes, knowing that his father, a big shot in the music world, will pull strings to pave his way. At the other end of the spectrum, Chen Lei’s parents are poor, cannot understand her ambition and expect to eventually move in with her; Chen, who dreams of emigrating abroad, feels torn, unwilling to hurt them but unable to conform to their expectations. Somewhere in the middle, Fei has a father who proudly celebrates his son’s matriculation at the Academy with a lavish banquet but, at the same time, writes poetry advising him toward modesty and moderation.
Oddly, the parent/child split recalls the mutual incomprehension between the baby boomers of 1960s America, raised in affluence, and their Depression-era elders. But here, a general reverence for family, heightened by only-child interdependence, leads to tension and compromise rather than rebellion.
The instructors at the Academy, who have known severe hardship themselves, consider the students overindulged and unrealistic in their expectations. Liu Hongmei, the main Chinese director of the play, talks about the difficulty of achieving success in a fascinating montage of action scenes from her brief film career as a martial-arts actress, before she opted for teaching. Together with Jasper Grant, the young, gung-ho, impossibly upbeat-sounding American musical director who joins the production midstream, the teachers collude to bring the students down a peg. Grant holds auditions to see which lucky winners will accompany him to Broadway and chooses eight students. Then Liu announces that the promise was a hoax, an illusion — a life lesson, as it were — to the bitter disappointment of Chen, who sees her dream come true and then turn to dust.
Throughout, Hao’s focus on individual students struggling to secure key roles in the production invites viewer identification. A coda, shot three years after graduation, updates their roads to fame, or to its opposite.