On a hot August afternoon, subdued sunlight filtered through the dirt-streaked windows of the second floor hall where rehearsals for a major new musical, “The Joker’s Game,” were under way. The space was unimposing — adjacent to a pigeon coop and up a steep external staircase — but the Songlei Musical Theater Ensemble’s talent and intensity of purpose were unmistakable.
As a pianist played in the corner, four young Chinese actresses broke into a toe-tapping song and dance number performed with such elan that members of the production team burst into applause. The actresses fleetingly acknowledged the clapping and then carried on.
“No!” exclaimed the director, Tony Stimac, leaping to his feet. “No! You don’t cut off their applause!” Mr. Stimac, who has directed more than 150 shows in his career, turned to the interpreter to make sure his instructions were repeated in Chinese and then signaled the pianist to continue.
“We’re finding that we’re really having to teach everything,” whispered James Racheff, co-author of the book for “Joker’s Game” (with Mr. Stimac and Kemin Zhang).
The show previewed Dec. 15 and 16 in Dongguan, a south China city that hopes to become the country’s musical theater capital. The production has music by Mark Allen, additional songs by Louis St. Louis (“Grease,” “Grease II”), choreography by Josh Prince (“Shrek, The Musical”) and is produced by Li Dun (“Butterflies,” “Love U, Teresa”), arguably China’s most indomitable promoter of musical theater.
With its catchy choral numbers, poignant ballads, eye-popping magic tricks, standout choreography, and stunning sets, “Joker’s Game” has all the makings of a hit. It is, moreover, just one of many Broadway-style musicals arriving on Chinese stages this year and next.
As top-notch venues built specifically for musical theater open in cities large and small, the race is on to find shows to fill them. With no national repertoire to draw from, producers and impresarios have adopted three general approaches: importing foreign productions, like an English-language “Notre Dame de Paris,” which runs Dec. 27-30 in Beijing; Mandarin versions of global hits, like the Shanghai-based Asia United Co. Ltd.’s production of “Mamma Mia,” which has been touring to sell-out crowds in multiple cities and returns to Shanghai from Dec. 28 to Jan. 19; and original Chinese productions.
A more indigenous style of musical drama exemplified by the work of the director Meng Jinghui is also highly popular; some Meng productions are even reminiscent of Vaudeville. Musical-like propaganda shows mounted by local governments are also increasingly common, though they can’t be called popular.
“The era of musicals in China has come,” said Li Dun, the producer of “Joker’s Game.” “New York and London have led for many years, but now the whole world is interested in Chinese culture, because of the economy.”
Mr. Stimac, who works with Mr. Li, agrees. “If you think of New York in the 1920s, there would be a hundred shows, but they were slapped up,” Mr. Stimac said. China is also producing many shows quickly now, but it has a pool of expertise to draw on, he said. “That’s why I think it will be fast when it happens — it will explode.”
The caveat, adds Mr. Stimac, is that each show is still a gamble. “There has to be one musical in China that people want to see — not that they are forced to see, or that they get free tickets to see,” Mr. Stimac said. “But that’s not easy — only 1 in 26 musicals succeed.”
Each of the three approaches to musicals currently being taken in China faces distinct hurdles. For an imported production, the hurdles are language and cost; ticket prices are necessarily high and the audience that wants to see a subtitled production is limited. Translated productions face similar cost issues — the Mandarin “Mamma Mia” reportedly cost more than $6 million to produce. There are also risks inherent in linguistic and cultural translation.
Many argued that Chinese audiences would not accept a translated musical, although the success of “Mamma Mia” has temporarily silenced them. A Mandarin version of “Cats” will be staged next year. Original productions are perhaps the most challenging of all.
“Very few actors have the combined skills or innate style for the musical,” said Don Frantz, a producer and director at Town Square Productions.
Many original musicals have been tried over the past decade, but most vanished as soon as the curtain fell. The failure to create a breakout homegrown musical so far has spurred the move to hire foreign talent.