Adapted Chinese films are drawing audiences into local stage theaters

By Sun Shuangjie Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/30 19:03:39

In December, fans of Taiwanese pop singer, actor and film director Jay Chou will have a new way to chase the aura of their idol. Secret, the first film directed and co-written by Chou, will be adapted into a stage musical by a production team of award-winning artists from Broadway. It will debut Christmas Eve at Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center.

A scene from Jay Chou's film Secret

A scene from Jay Chou's film Secret

Twelve shows are scheduled in Beijing during the musical's first national tour, which will come to SAIC Shanghai Culture Square in February for eight shows. The tickets, cheaper than those of Chou's sold-out music concerts but also more scarce, are selling quickly.

Fans of Chou in other Chinese cities such as Guangzhou in Guangdong Province and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province are calling for the show to tour in those regions as well. According to the musical's presenter, China Broadway Entertainment Holding Limited (China Broadway), the show is expected to also include cities outside of the Chinese mainland, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao.

"Secret marks our new attempt to expand the market for theater productions in China," said Elsa Huang, managing director of China Broadway. Founded in December of 2014, Huang's company aims to attract more audiences into local theaters with shows that offer novel experiences. It, for instance, organized a China tour for Ice Age Live! A Mammoth Adventure and produced the immersive Where is the Groom.

Jukebox musical, with Mama Mia! as its most prominent worldwide staple show, has become a new key for the company to open the door to potential theater markets in China. Jay Chou, who has been active in the Chinese music scene for 16 years, and Jonathan Lee, who nourished Chinese music lovers for three decades, have become the latest highlights for the company.

All the world's a stage

Thanks to Chou's popular film Secret, which won a nomination for Best Asian Film at the 2007 Hong Kong Film Awards, a musical featuring Chou's songs is the perfect first production for the company.

It has been a trend to adapt popular films or TV series to stage productions in China in recent years, as noted by the annual report on China's performance market released by China Association of Performing Arts in 2015.

Last year alone, Shanghai staged such adaptations included A Simple Life, Zhenhuan, Shanghai Bund, Tiny Times, Love is not Blind and Legend of Sword. Among them A Simple Life was adapted from an award-winning film starring Andy Lau, and Shanghai Bund from a critically-acclaimed TV series from the 1980s starring Chow Yun-fat.

A scene from musical Shanghai Bund

A scene from musical Shanghai Bund

Zhenhuan and Love is not Blind were originally written as novels, while it was their adaptation into television and film that made them popular among Chinese audiences. The extremely popular Tiny Times, originally a book trilogy, was adapted into four hit films, and Legend of Sword, first a computer game and later a popular TV series, accumulated a considerably large number of fans in its original artistic form.

The theater production of Legend of Sword debuted in Shanghai last April with a full-house, and then toured to other Chinese cities for 100 shows. Earlier in 2016, the show was updated to a so-called 5D version and embarked on another national tour. In December, the play will get a new overseas version, the first stop confirmed to be Sydney.

A Simple Life, produced by Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (SDAC) last summer, was one of the most popular Chinese theater plays in 2015, and also had a better performance in ticket sales than most other Chinese plays made by SDAC.

Setting the stage

Last year, the overall box office for performing arts in China achieved 16.2 billion yuan ($2.35 billion), increasing 9.03 percent from 2014, while the box office for shows staged in professional theaters surged to 7.07 billion yuan, increasing 6.95 percent from 2014. Comparatively, China's booming film industry garnered 44 billion yuan last year in box office sales, climbing 48.7 percent from 2014.

Thus it is seen as a worthwhile trial for theater artists to take advantage of the fruits of the film and television industries by adapting their popular stories into stage productions.

According to the producer of drama The Left Ear, which was adapted from a popular novel and whose synonymous film earned 500 million in box office receipts last year, the film's same audience are likely to also contribute at least 30 percent of sales for the stage version.

Huang is confident about the market for musical Secret, not only due to Chou's long-established fame among Chinese audiences, but also because she invited a team of highly regarded theater artists to nurture the production.

John Rando, winner of the Tony Award for Best Direction of musical Urinetown in 2002, will serve as the director of Secret, while Zach Woodlee, choreographer and co-producer of the TV series Glee, as its choreographer and Beowulf Boritt, who designed the Tony Award-winning set for Act One, as its stage designer. Cast members will be selected from across China at public auditions.

Jay Chou (left) meets John Rando, director of the musical Secret, during a rehearsal of the show.

Jay Chou (right) meets with John Rando, director of the musical Secret, during a rehearsal of the show.

Taking center stage

The original film versions of Secret revolves around a romance between two high school students in a time-travel setting. According to Huang, the romance will remain the core of the musical, but other themes such as adolescence, friendship and familial bonds will also be highlighted on stage. Chou's 25 songs will be integrated into the performance.

It is normal practice for theater productions to choose different approaches from their original films, due to the different characteristics of these artistic mediums. For instance, the film Secret is considered subdued and reserved, but when told on stage through a musical, it must introduce more lively elements in order to captivate a live audience.

When A Simple Life was staged last year, it also chose a new perspective. Unlike the film, which focuses on a young man's bond with his old family maid, the play sheds more light upon the lives of seniors, an important element of Chinese culture.

To localize the stage version of the story, the Hong Kong-set nursing home in the film was moved to Shanghai, offering more relevance to mainland audiences. Moreover, the production interviewed elderly Shanghainese and integrated their interviews into video feeds during interludes between each act.

"For me, it means more pressure than convenience to adapt A Simple Life," Wang Yinan, producer of the play, told the Global Times. "The film is critically acclaimed, and if we mess up the play, it'll be a shame."

A scene from drama A Simple Life Photos: CFP and courtesy of China Broadway and SDAC

A scene from drama A Simple Life Photos: CFP and courtesy of China Broadway and SDAC

Getting upstaged

Like many other plays adapted from popular films, A Simple Life managed to invite a prominent production team and a stellar cast, which made it one of the most expensive plays produced by SDAC last year. The actors are all prestigious veteran performers in China, and the script, according to Wang, had been revised many times before finalization.

As a result, although the play boldly changes the structure of the original story, it has received laudatory reviews from Chinese media, who regard it as an earnest work that portrays important concerns about Chinese society.

"I think that the theater industry should have a long-term vision for the business, which means that even if we're adapting popular stories, we should make sure that they are turned into high-quality live performances that can convert new audiences into loyal audiences," said Wang. "If the production is not good, it will only harm the public's enthusiasm for stage theater."

Currently in China, interaction between the film and theater industries is growing rapidly, as not only are popular films being turned into stage productions but also theatrical creative teams are bringing their works to cinema.

But it's rarely seen that a film's IP holders or creative force will also participate in the theater production, as most adapted plays in China rely on their own creative teams.

Wang, who is also an experienced TV and film actress, told the Global Times that this is because film is usually more profitable than a stage play in China, and also because theatrical businesses are more professionally and physically demanding for stage actors and production teams.

China's theater audience is still comparatively small, so by seducing more people into local theaters with familiar stories, Wang hopes that this growing business will eventually attract more talent to join the stage theater industry.

"A film can rely on editing to present a story, but a play is happening in front of your eyes. Everything must be perfect and right, " Wang said.

"I've always believed that an actor is 10 times more charming on stage than on the screen," she added.
Newspaper headline: From screen to stage


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