Mamma Mia!

The 40-million-RMB production could make or break China’s fledgling musical theatre industry.

Chinese Mamma Mia! is at the Century Theatre from Friday 12 - Wednesday 31 August (closed Mon) at 7.30pm. Also Saturday 13 - Sunday 14, Saturday 20 - Sunday 21, Saturday 27 - Sunday 28 August at 2pm.

Summer is usually the long, hot dry spell between international festivals and big-budget tours, but this month Beijing becomes a part of theatre history, as China’s first wholly professional localised production of a major hit musical shimmies into town. Yes, the feel-good, glitter-tastic international Abba sensation Mamma Mia! will play Beijing in Mandarin Chinese.
There have been one or two other attempts at re-doing a Western musical for a Chinese audience. The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre adapted the off-Broadway show I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change into Mandarin in 2006, and students from Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama (CAD) presented the first Mandarin version of  Fame, in late 2009. But Mamma Mia! represents the first time that a  localised musical has been attempted on such a scale in China.
The United Artists Live Entertainment (UAE) production has a Western creative team but an all-Chinese cast. With costs coming in at 40 million RMB, Mamma Mia! is set for an unprecedented tour of 200 per formances in three cities, starting with Shanghai last month. But while hearing Chinese singers belting out ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Super Trouper’ in Mandarin may be fun for audiences, producers are holding their collective breaths – the success or failure of this bold venture will determine the future of the Middle Kingdom’s nascent musical theatre industry. 
‘This should lead the way for a whole new generation of [translated] Western musicals,’ says Tony Stimac, a theatre producer who has developed more new musicals than anyone in the US, and is now director and co-author of China’s latest original musical,  The Joker’s Game.
Don Frantz, a legendary producer and Broadway bigwig who has produced the likes of  The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, agrees. ‘All over the world, localised Broadway shows have built audiences and funded theatre companies,’ he says. ‘This is a bold experiment for China... but eventually a private investor financially focused on creating the theatrical equivalent of Starbucks or McDonald’s will step forward.’ 
Frantz is a former CEO of Nederlander China, which brought successful musicals such as Aida and 42nd Street to Chinese cities (and partnered with CAD for Fame); now he’s developing a number of transplanted musicals as well as massive outdoor spectacles in Inner Mongolia. For the likes of Frantz, Mamma Mia! represents the long-overdue second prong of a three-stage plan to revolutionise Chinese musical theatre. The first part, touring foreign musicals, went swimmingly, but stage two – which involves adapting the best stories so that they’re better suited to local audiences – has been a tougher sell. In 2008, renowned West End producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted a localised version of Les Miserables, but officials baulked at the ‘unlucky title’ – though the student revolution sub-plot may have also played a part.
Meanwhile, Chinese entertainment companies were all vying for the title of ‘first original musical success story’, but leapfrogging their Western competition has been disastrous. Broadway may spend five years developing a musical, but Chinese officials often dictate the story and set a three-month deadline, leaving little time for workshopping or even rehearsal. ‘It’s really hard to write a good musical,’ says Simone Genatt Haft, chair of production company Broadway Asia Entertainment. ‘It’s really, really easy to write a bad one.’ Another problem is training; China produces dancers or singers or actors, but rarely the ‘triple threats’ so valued in the West.
However, done right, musical theatre is (gasp!) a profitable art form, and for all China’s stalled projects, there are encouraging signs. Shanghai Theatre Academy and Shanghai Conservatory of Music have been collaborating to produce more well-rounded students, CAD’s production of Fame broke new ground, and the newly opened Shanghai Culture Square is planning heavy musical theatre programming. This all points to part three of the China plan, with companies creating quality, internationally marketable original works.
Still, the industry needs a catalyst, and Mamma Mia! might be it. Unlike , the story is controversy-free, with the minor exception of an unwed mother and her free-spirited lifestyle. ‘If this adaptation works well, others can follow,’ says Phil Qiu, a local expert for ‘We can prove that we can do this in China.’ Conversely, a box-office bomb could send already skittish investors back to the casinos, leaving a trail of struggling shows, empty theatres and unemployed actors.
But the Chinese producers have high hopes. ‘This production will expand the market, open the industry and help train China’s musical theatre actors,’ says producer and UAE general manager Tian Yuan. His colleague, vice general manager Ma Chencheng, is more circumspect. ‘In China, we lack experience about [staging and sets], and professional musical theatre actors are hard to find,’ he says. ‘But this is a good chance to learn from a Western creative team, and, in the end, our per formers will be more professional.’
The Shanghai premiere on July 8 received mixed reviews: official sources glowed, but others thought performances could be stronger. More tellingly, some felt that, with Mandarin’s tonal elements and China’s need for cultural identification, English language musical theatre might be lost in translation. Still, shows revise/improve as they go, interpretations can be tweaked and, as long as tickets are selling, we can count on a solid stage three – high quality, original Chinese musicals operating within a vibrant Chinese theatre scene. For investors and audiences alike, that’s the real bottom line.