In China, a taste of Broadway's 'Fame'

A bid to develop and grow musical theater begins with a storied import.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    The musical FAME is being staged in Beijing for the first time.
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    The musical FAME is being staged in Beijing for the first time.
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    The musical FAME is being staged in Beijing for the first time.
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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.

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.

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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."

NNC hired professional translators for the English script, but CAD felt they had interpreted individual words, not concepts, thus rendering the text incomprehensible. In their version of the "Dancing on the Sidewalk" number, for example, Joe's erotic fantasies are about his sister, not his cousin; in Chinese the two terms are used interchangeably.

CAD decided to do the job itself, also taking the bold step of translating the lyrics, since otherwise "people wouldn't understand it," says Liu. Musical phrasing required the translators to use formal, even poetic language, which clashed with "Fame's" modern tone. As for opting to pepper the script with names of Western, not Chinese, celebrities, "we were afraid they would sue us."

Would names translate?

Another issue was whether retaining English names in the Chinese text, such as Carmen, Nick, and Tyrone, interrupted the flow. "We were tortured by that," explains Liu. "But Chinese audiences feel that if something is familiar, it's not exciting." He recalls when CAD's Russian guest director launched Chekov's "Ivanov" with a Chinese cast, costumes, and setting. "The Russians thought it was fabulous, a new interpretation," says Liu. "But the Chinese wanted to hear Russian voices and Russian design, some exotic color and flavor."

A 'modern audience'

More interesting, in fact, is what Liu chose not to change.

"When I read 'Dancing on the Sidewalk' and the character's reaction to seeing naked girls, it was uncomfortable," confesses Liu. However, he cautioned his student translation team against knee-jerk censorship, instructing them instead to find a character-driven way to explain it. "We weighed all the issues," says Liu. "I thought, OK, he's a healthy young man, he sees his desire in a poetic and joking way. Audiences will probably say, 'Oh, those naughty boys' and get a good laugh."

Issues that concerned NNC, however, didn't faze Liu, such as a character who suspects that her boyfriend is homosexual and another who takes diet pills and cocaine before dying of a drug overdose (producers touring to conservative areas in the United States stage this as a sleeping-pill-related traffic fatality). In China, savage dieting is not yet the issue it is in America and teenage drug use is rising but not endemic, but Liu still felt that these problems exist and would resonate with theatergoers.

"China is living in [the] modern world and this is a modern audience," says Liu. "Every single element, event, or issue in the script, Chinese audiences can hear it, face it, or deal with it," he continues. "That's why we wanted to do this show."

NNC had hoped to tour "Fame" as Step 2 of its ambitious China project, replacing amateurs with professionals while keeping the CAD-built set and translation. However, the notion of a Mandarin "Fame" has been met with a cool reception from some regional theater impresarios.

"It's a new thing," explains Wang Luoyang, the only Chinese actor to be featured on Broadway. "You see Russian ballet, Irish Riverdance – but a Broadway musical, done by Chinese? To us, it's like Peking Opera done by Americans." Wang isn't worried, however, predicting great room for growth – in time. "Audiences see a Chinese guy on stage grabbing his crotch, it's shocking," he says. "But they'll get used to it."

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