Chinese musicals growing, more time and confidence needed
Published: Mar 28, 2022 05:56 PM
The musical <em>Faust</em> debuts in Beijing. Photo: VCG

The musical Faust debuts in Beijing. Photo: VCG

 "Chinese musicals have been growing fast in recent years," musical industry insiders noted.

This trend can be seen in how difficult it is to purchase a ticket to a popular musical, or how many times Chinese audiences are willing to watch a musical repeatedly.

In Shanghai, for example, a total of 911 performances of 148 musicals were staged in 2021, right in the middle of the pandemic, up 142 percent year on year. A total of 524,000 tickets were sold, an increase of 129 percent year on year. Watching a musical has become one of the best leisure choices for more and more Chinese people, the People's Daily reported.

"In the absence of imported musical dramas due to the pandemic, domestic musicals have grown up, bringing a certain number of original works into the musical market and increasing its confidence," Zhang Zhilin, an original musical producer and founder of Shanghai C-Musicals Cultural Communications, told the Global Times on Thursday.

As a musical industry insider, Zhang has personal experience of the rise of the industry. Two musical works The Bad Kids and The Long Night were performed 100 times in Shanghai over the six months since it debuted in August 2021. Both works have a higher than 9.0/10 rating on review platforms.

However, a recent article says that Chinese musicals are losing their groove as the industry has embraced "South Korean idol culture" by merging the musical industry with the idol and fan industry. This has led to a boom in the industry, but it is unsustainable in the long run. 

The opinion has sparked a huge discussion among musical industry insiders and musical fans. Different camps are debating the same issue: What does the Chinese musical industry really need?

Influence of idol culture 

Luo Luo, a cultural investor based in Beijing, saw the unfavorable as a first shot against Chinese musicals, as did Zhang.

She told the Global Times on Wednesday that she saw many people discussing the development of Chinese musicals on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo and WeChat in recent days. 

"Most thought the article was unfair or even untrue." 

Luo said that China's musical industry just started late, which was very late compared with the Western musical industry. So "blaming China for not having a world-class repertoire is like blaming a schoolboy for not doing as well as a university student at a sports meet."

A hit variety show Super Vocal produced by Hunan TV helped put musicals in the public eye and allowed more young people to become familiar with the art form, the article said. It added that the show exploited the country's love affair with fresh-faced young male idols, turning them into the face of the musical theater industry.

The article said that fans buying tickets was not about them truly appreciating musicals but just an act to support their "idols."

Zhang and Luo disagreed with the attitude toward the young musical performers discussed in the article, saying that idol culture is not a scourge and should not be blindly condemned.

"Any culture needs to be guided correctly, and we have the responsibility to build a positive cultural atmosphere for idols," Zhang said. 

Luo noted that the fans' modest love of idols is just a channel that has allowed them to discover the charm of musicals. Additionally, the capital brought in by this trend will enable the musical industry to produce more brilliant original works that will, over time, turn these fans into true loyal musical lovers.

"What musicals want to convey is the beauty of art with people yearning for a better life. We hope to deliver the story of the lives of ordinary or extraordinary people through this art form. There are stories of hard work, the elimination of evil and the promotion of good or people trying to better themselves being depicted on stage, all of which bring out the best in human beings," Zhang said.

What Chinese musicals need

High-quality original works, mentioned many times during the interview with Zhang and Luo, and loyal fans of musicals were determined to be what the Chinese musical industry needs most.

Musical fan Han, who has watched several performances and prefers Man of La Mancha and Mozart, l'opéra rock, said that she has been looking forward to watching a splendid China-made musical that reaches the same level of quality as her favorites from the West.

How can the Chinese musical industry produce more high-quality original works? This is a question that industry insiders are wrestling with.

As a producer of original musical works, Zhang told the Global Times that sharpening musical talent is the No.1 priority. More mature and professional talent is needed not only for actors, but also for scriptwriters, directors and musical writers. As the Chinese musical industry started late and many workers in the industry have switched from other fields such as dramas, so they lack a solid foundation and training before entering the industry.

The other important factor is funding. Chinese musicals do not yet have a mature and standardized investment process, like Broadway's financial support for musicals and other live performances.

Chinese musical industry insiders and fans are optimistic about the development of Chinese musicals, considering the fact that the young industry is exploring ways to grow and needs more time as well as confidence to further develop.