17 August 2019
The Chinese version of the Broadway musical Mama Mia! generated nearly US$21 million by the end of its second tour in 2012. Photo: Xinhua
The Chinese version of the Broadway musical Mama Mia! generated nearly US$21 million by the end of its second tour in 2012. Photo: Xinhua

In China, there’s no business like show business

For most people, China doesn’t even come to mind when you mention big budget Broadway-quality musicals.

But if all goes according to plan, Beijing could soon be vying for hot new musical debuts with New York’s Broadway and London’s West End, where a smash hit can take in from US$600,000 to US$1 million per week in ticket sales.

China is building a major new musical production center 30 miles south of Beijing in the city of Langfang, according to China Daily, in the hopes that it will become an incubator for both foreign and homegrown commercially viable productions.

With an investment of US$323 million from the local government and Beijing-based production company Ovation Cultural Development, the one million square foot facility, which will include a theater and production facilities, will develop musicals that can run in Beijing and tour cities nationwide.

Over the last decade well-known musicals like Mamma Mia! and Cats have had several productions in China, initially in English. Now Mandarin-language versions of American and British shows are popular, with more than 300,000 people seeing a Mandarin-language Mamma Mia! in 2011, according to the New York Times.

Mamma Mia! generated nearly US$21 million by the end of its second tour in 2012.

Many big name international producers foresee the coming of age in musical theater in China, a country seen as having a potentially huge audience market.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer famous for successful, long-running musicals like Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Evita, sees China and the entire region as a growth market, recently announcing plans to restructure his company so he can infuse more investment capital in Asia, according to [email protected]

Lloyd Webber’s privately owned holding company, worth about US$242 million, de-merged into two entities in May. One, named Really Useful Theatres (RUT), will concentrate on expanding Lloyd Webber’s Asian fan base, one “memory” at a time.

Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables, the world’s longest-running musical, successfully toured China, and has also been performed in Korean and Japanese. Disney Theatricals has produced Beauty and the Beast and Lion King in Chinese. Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, founded by one of the big three major Broadway theater owners, has operations in China to bring Broadway shows, like 42nd Street, all over the country.

Wharton marketing professor Shen Qiaowei, in [email protected], notes that people in China have moved beyond spending the bulk of their incomes on the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, and even past material products. Nowadays, people will spend their “disposable income on cultural” attractions, says Shen.

The Langfang center’s first show will be a Mandarin-language adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which will play 100 performances in Beijing before touring the country next year.

According to Li Xiaofei, general manager of Ovation Cultural Development, the Chinese version of the Tony Award-winning musical has been in development for three years and features themes mutually understood by the audience, such as parents and children, responsibility and morality, said China Daily.

“The musical market in China is very promising,” Li told the newspaper. “Unlike some other Western art forms, like opera and ballet, musicals are commercial and entertaining. It doesn’t require professional knowledge to appreciate.” 

The Into the Woods run will coincide with the opening of a Disney film version of the musical starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt.

Musicals generated US$1.9 billion in the US and US$269 million in Britain last year. China is a far cry from either, pulling in a little more than US$37.2 million in 2013 for all musical productions, but insiders think it won’t be hard for China to become a musical heavyweight, much as it has become a juggernaut in the movie business.

For what it’s worth, I think theater goers in China are ready.

The writer is a China commentator. He writes on China for Forbes.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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