Western musicals to find larger audience in China in 2019
Rockin’ the Market
Published: Jan 28, 2019 06:28 PM

Promotional material for School of Rock. Photo: Courtesy of SMG Live


Ma Chencheng. Photo: Courtesy of SMG Live

They may not be rich, but they sure are crazy - crazy for musicals that is. Chinese audiences' love of the genre has ensured great success for such performances in China. In 2018, the musical Chicago toured to 10 cities around the Chinese mainland over 16 weeks, performing more shows than it did throughout the rest of Asia. 

"The Chinese market has been a huge boon for every Western musical touring Asia," noted Ma Chencheng, president of Shanghai Media Group Live (SMG Live), while announcing his company's plans to bring School of Rock, with a new score from Andrew Lloyd Webber, to Shanghai on Wednesday. 

"It will stay at the Shanghai Grand Theatre for four weeks starting on February 22, before moving to the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center starting from March 22… Shanghai deserves its title as the Asian capital of the performing arts. It is really a good time for us in this market," he added. 

Working together 

Basing on the 2003 film starring comedian Jack Black, the upcoming musical School of Rock follows Dewey Finn, a has-been rock star looking to earn some extra cash by posing as a teacher at a prestigious prep school. Discovering these students' talent for rock'n'roll, he decides to bring these kids to the stage so they can become the most awesome rock band of all time. 

Casting 12 children ages 9 to 13, the musical also features lyrics by three-time Tony-nominee Glenn Slater while the script was written by Downton Abbey's Oscar-winning Julian Fellowes. 

"After seeing it, I was illuminated and enlightened," Ma said, recalling the first time he watched the musical two years ago. 

Prior to the show, he had thought the musical was only about a rock school and kids and had nothing that would capture an adult's interest. 

"I was wrong," he said. 

"It is not just about a rock band, but also family, caring and listening. In the musical, we not only get to watch these 12 children dance, sing and perform on stage, but also get a chance for a better understanding of the musical master Webber."

This misunderstanding also extended to the organizers of the Chinese tour, who paused at the thought of managing a show whose main cast was made up of children. 

"The first time I heard about it from a friend, I thought it would be difficult to manage even though it had such a good reputation," Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, said. 

"However, working with SMG Live, which has rich experience in musicals, gave us the confidence to go through with it. I believe their performances on stage will move everyone." 

The China tour for School of Rock is the latest fruit of the long-term collaboration between SMG Live and Webber's Really Useful Group. This five-year-long project aims to help upgrade the Chinese musical industry in terms of production and marketing as well as develop new audiences within the market. Starting from 2017, the two sides have been working on a series of projects, including bringing the original The Phantom of the Opera to China by 2020, the production of a reality TV competition to find performers for a Chinese version of the musical and the production of a Chinese language version of Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday

New ambitions 

"Our ambition is for Chinese audiences to be able to enjoy musical theater productions that are every bit the equal in scale and quality to those in North America or Europe. Now, in Shanghai Media Group, we have a partner with whom we can achieve this goal," Webber said of the collaboration in 2017. 

In the eyes of many Western producers, China has grown into a major market with great potential in terms of audience and productions. Franz Patay, CEO of the theatrical company Vereinigte Bühnen Wien, said at a forum in Shanghai on May 11, 2018, that if one third of China's total population walked into theaters for musicals that would be a huge market. 

How to attract young audiences to the musicals has been a global challenge for musical theaters. Patay suggested that adapting to today's climate should include allowing photos be taken after the end of a musical in order to meet audiences' social media needs. 

In China, public education and cultivation have played a key role in the creation of new and original musicals. However, some high quality musicals have suffered in the market due to lack of exposure. 

"It is unfair to those musicals that have interesting storytelling and great production but have little fame. Reputation doesn't play the same function as it does in the UK and the US," Ma said. 

Taking musicals to campuses to give students the opportunity to learn more about them has been SMG Live and the Shanghai Grand Theatre's solution to this problem. Before School of Rock's Asia premiere, they plan to host various events and master classes at schools in Shanghai to raise young audiences' interest as well as their awareness of musicals. 

"We want everyone to know that musicals are closely related to our lives and dreams," Zhang added. 

In Ma's opinion, musicals suitable for the whole family like School of Rock are sure to start a trend in China's musical market as the "hard-core" audiences that made the Chinese version of Mamma Mia! a hit in 2010 are now parents. This has created market demand for musicals the whole family can enjoy. In addition to School of Rock, the UK's award-winning Matilda The Musical will kick off a tour of 13 Chinese cities in June, while French musicals such as Les Choristes will also be making their way to the country.