Show must go on for Shanghai’s musical theater
Published: Dec 19, 2013 07:43 PM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

The Phantom of the Opera has proved a hit in Shanghai since it debuted in the city on December 3. The touring production has received glowing reviews in both traditional media and on social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have seen my friends sharing pictures and their impressions of the show on their blogs. Their responses have been overwhelmingly positive. The gorgeous costumes, magical stage effects, and above all, the heavenly voices of the performers have truly impressed the audience. The show's venue, the Shanghai Culture Square, has established its reputation as the premier theater to stage musicals in Shanghai, and perhaps even China.

But the public praise came to a sudden halt on Tuesday evening when The Phantom of the Opera was cancelled mid-performance due to technical problems.

First, the start of the performance was delayed for about 20 minutes. Next the screens displaying subtitles stopped working in the middle of a song, prompting staff to halt the show for several minutes while they fixed the glitch. Not long after resuming, the theater's sound system cut out. It was at this point that the theater decided to cancel the evening's performance.

It so happened that several of my colleagues were in the audience that night. They told me that the theater seemed unprepared for the cancellation. Before a compensation statement had been worked out, the roughly 2,000 unlucky audience members were asked to leave their contact information with the limited theater staff. Among the audience, there were reportedly people from other provinces who came to Shanghai to see the renowned show. Some couldn't help crying, according to my colleague.

On the plus side, the theater announced a straightforward and reasonable compensation plan the next day. Audience members can receive a full refund if they present their ticket stub to staff by Monday. In addition to the refund, the theater will give attendees of the cancelled show a free ticket to another performance of the musical. The new tickets will be of equal value to those they bought for Tuesday's performance. Tickets cost between 80 yuan ($13.18) and 1,280 yuan.

However, while I saw some media reports the following day praising the theater's quick response, I couldn't help wondering whether the underlying technical problem had been fixed.

I had a ticket for Wednesday night's performance, and to be frank, my heart didn't settle until the cast took their bow at about 9:50 pm. I'm sure I wasn't the only audience member who felt they couldn't trust the theater. It's fair to say that my enjoyment of the show was affected to some extent by the problems of the night before.

In fact, it reminded me of an occasion when I spent a night at a five-star hotel in a suburban district of Shanghai. From the window of the guest room, I had a great view of a relaxing and serene landscape. I hoped for a tranquil and comfortable night there. But after I spotted mold growing on the carpet, I couldn't sleep worrying about everything else in the hotel.

Like the five-star hotel, Shanghai Culture Square is certainly an impressive-looking structure. Covering 57,000 square meters and with a total of 2,010 seats, it is the world's largest underground theater. It opened in 2011 after years of construction. The state-of-the-art venue was built at a cost of 1.1 billion yuan specifically to host musicals, setting it apart from the city's two other main performance venues, the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the Shanghai Concert Hall. The venue has hosted a number of classic Western musicals since 2011.

But Tuesday's accident is like a fish bone trapped in the throat. We don't know whether the problem has been permanently solved. Never mind future shows, The Phantom of the Opera still has about 40 more performances in the city before the touring company leaves for South Korea in February.

If the Shanghai Culture Square hopes to one day be a Chinese equivalent of the West End or Broadway, there is still a long way to go to reach that point.

It's not just Shanghai that has been funneling money towards the infrastructure needed for a world-class performing arts industry. Around the country, we can find conspicuous buildings mushrooming in every corner of the nation. Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts, better known as "the giant egg," opened in 2007 after six years of construction and ran over budget, eventually costing over 3 billion yuan. The cost of maintenance is so expensive that the venue may never make a profit.

Some of the biggest challenges facing China's budding musical industry include attracting an audience and training the talent. However, on Tuesday night the theater was packed and the hugely experienced international cast was on top form. Given the huge investment in the theater itself, no one expected that Shanghai's gleaming new venue would have trouble with the electricity.

Hopefully, Tuesday night's cancellation was a one-off and Shanghai Culture Square has learned some valuable lessons.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.