Copying musicals of the West 'not the way to go'
Mainland producers, hampered by a lack of big-name Chinese musicals, are adapting and translating more Western works into Putonghua, but one expert has questioned whether that is the best way to develop the art form.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats will become the second top Western musical to be performed in Putonghua next month, following last year's Mama Mia.
Shanghai-based United Asia Live Entertainment, the producer of both adaptations, says making Putonghua versions of the cream of Western musicals is a necessary step before Chinese can produce their own.
However, mainland researcher Wen Shuo said that strategy displayed 'an incorrect understanding of the musical' and would not succeed.
United Asia general manager Tian Yuan said that while Chinese people wanted to turn out their own high-quality and commercially successful musicals, it was difficult to pull off.
'Making a musical is a systematic effort that presents high requirements for every aspect of the production process, ranging from players and stage designers to stage managers and so on,' Tian said. 'But there is little such talent on the mainland with enough experience on musicals.
'Artists experienced in making films or producing stage dramas might not adapt well to musicals. What's more, it's a huge challenge for us to recruit musical players.'
Tian also said the making of a world-class musical required strict production standards, but many domestic troupes did not follow standardised procedures.
Tian said there would be three stages in the development of mainland musicals. The first was the introduction of highly acclaimed Western works to mainland audiences to nurture local demand. The second is the staging of Putonghua versions of Western musicals, with local teams able to learn from their foreign counterparts. When local teams develop all the skills needed to produce musicals it will be time for the third stage - Chinese creating their own works.
In the past 12 years, more than 10 Western musicals have been staged in English on the mainland.
In March last year, Tian's company, a joint venture between two state-owned companies, China Arts and Entertainment Group and Shanghai Media Group, and South Korean media conglomerate CJ E&M, signed a three-year co-operation deal with Britain's The Really Useful Group, which owns the copyright to Cats, to localise one musical every year.
She said translation was the most difficult part of localising a musical, because Putonghua's tones and rhymes differ from those of English. Resolving the problem required many amendments, she said.
The Chinese version of Cats is expected to be performed about 170 times in six mainland cities this year, debuting in Shanghai on August 17.
Wen, a Beijing-based independent researcher on musicals, said it was unlikely to be a commercial success because the original version had already been performed many times on the mainland.
Wen said he did not agree with Tian that Chinese artists should follow Western musicals before creating their own works. He said the art form had existed in China for thousands of years in folk operas featuring singing, dancing and intriguing storylines.
'Foreign producers have something we can learn, especially their marketing methods and their ample production experience,' Wen said. 'But Chinese artists should dig up materials from the folk legends and our society. We can also add in our traditional opera performances.
'Only in this way can we develop musicals that will be warmly welcomed by locals and only in this way can our own musicals can go international.'