West End stages an invasion of China musicals market

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The Independent Online

Audiences in Shanghai and Beijing will soon be able to kick up their heels to Mandarin-language productions of West End and Broadway classics, as the British producer Cameron Mackintosh stages shows such as Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon in China.

Mackintosh, who has been described as the world's most powerful producer, will stage a Chinese-language version of Les Misérables at the National Grand Theatre near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in November 2008.

The staging is meant to showcase the Paul Andreu-designed building, which opened this year and has a 2,000-seat concert hall, and is referred to as "the egg". Auditions are due to take place before the end of this year.

To Western audiences, musicals may be a frothy and uplifting way to spend the evening, but like so much else, they are highly politicised in China. For many years, not a chorus line nor a technicolour dreamcoat were to be had. The only musicals you could see were propaganda displays, including the stirring The Red Detachment of Women, a ballet about a fearsome unit of the People's Liberation Army. Gymnastics displays and acrobatic shows were the order of the day.

For many years Mackintosh tried to stage shows in China but was constantly foiled by bureaucratic red tape. Then, in June 2002, he became the first Westerner to stage a musical in China when he put on an English-language production of Les Misérables in Shanghai.

The show won over the censorship panel because the Victor Hugo novel is popular in China and its message about revolution and struggle is deemed politically acceptable.

Mackintosh and his team must be feeling confident about their ability to break into the vast Chinese market. The powerful Ministry of Culture is on board – all of the productions are done in agreement with a state agency known as the China Arts and Entertainment Group. Foreign investment in the industry has only been allowed since 2005, allowing joint-venture theatre groups to be established.

Like many other industries, the aim is ultimately for Chinese firms to replicate the foreign companies. For the time being, the "West End" partnership will involve translating shows into Mandarin, but the plan is to train Chinese writers, performers and production crews to create original Chinese musicals.

Like everywhere else, Chinese audiences love musicals. In recent years all kinds have been performed in China, in English with super-titles overhead, including Cats in 2003, The Sound of Music in 2004 and Phantom of the Opera a year later. Tickets have changed hands for hundreds of dollars and the reactions have been phenomenal. This month 42nd Street is visiting seven cities on a 70-date tour of the country.

Mackintosh is planning to meet some of China's stars-to-be when he meets students at the prestigious Central Academy of Drama on Tuesday.