In China, a taste of Broadway's 'Fame'
A bid to develop and grow musical theater begins with a storied import.
Some Chinese people believe in a version of the American dream – work hard, and you will be rewarded. Work very hard, and you'll be a star. When students at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama (CAD) staged the world's first Mandarin version of "Fame," a musical based on the 1980 film about life at New York City's School for the Performing Arts, it was a great idea whose time had finally come.Skip to next paragraph
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As part of a back-to-basics workshop with Broadway giant Nederlander, CAD students are the first graduates of a groundbreaking program that could change theater in China.
China's classical musicians and dancers tread the world's most prestigious floorboards, but outside of acrobats and Peking Opera, Chinese theater has yet to draw a significant audience. The language barrier makes export difficult, but a bigger stumbling block is a lack of fundamentals; this is particularly true in musical theater, where the nation's few university programs train actors or singers or dancers, but no triple threats. Even more problematic is that while violinists and ballerinas can return home with competition gold medals, actors have fewer opportunities to win tangible accolades abroad. Without "international certification," stars don't get born, audiences don't buy tickets, shows don't get mounted, actors stay unemployed, and the theater industry lies dormant.
In 2007, Nederlander announced the unveiling of Nederlander New Century (NNC), a joint venture between Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment and Beijing Time New Century Entertainment, designed to bring Broadway to China.
Their three-pronged plan was to first tour Western musicals, then produce local language versions and, finally, help develop original and sustainable Chinese musical theater. Step 1 was a success; for Step 2, however, NNC is wisely building from the ground up, with their Mandarin-language "Fame."
"Students and teachers got so excited doing the table reading, everyone got tears in their eyes," says Don Franz, CEO of NNC. "They kept saying, 'This is our story.'"
Thus the great CAD experiment was born. NNC partnered with Phoenix Productions, which had just finished a Korean "Fame," and began working with the students on music, choreography, and character development. There were cultural adjustments, such as when CAD forced latecomers to formally apologize and bow before the visiting creative team, which made them uncomfortable.
Most striking, however, was Vice Headmaster Liu Libin's own epiphany about teaching methodology.
"He told us he was amazed at how the students got better and better when we complimented them,'" Mr. Franz recalls Mr. Liu saying, before revealing an essential tenet of Chinese culture. "He said they always thought if you told students they were good, then they would stop working."