Composer pioneers 'made in China' musicals

Story highlights

  • China has no musical theater tradition, although musicals like "Mamma Mia!" have been big hits
  • San Bao wants to combine Broadway showmanship with Chinese plot lines
  • He's produced seven musicals since 2005 and his latest is on tour

(CNN)In 1982, songwriter San Bao fell in love with musical theater -- then an alien art form in China -- when he saw a videotaped version of CATS, which became the longest running musical in Broadway history.

Fast forward three decades, and San Bao, who has enjoyed a successful career writing pop songs and helming music production at the Beijing Olympics, wants to make home-grown musicals to rival some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's biggest hits.
    Chinese songwriter and musical producer San Bao
    "This is what I want -- a real musical with Chinese characteristics," he told CNN.
    San Bao has made seven musicals since 2005 and his latest "Nie Xiaoqian and Ning Caichen" -- currently on tour in China -- draws on a collection of supernatural tales written during the early Qing Dynasty.
    Underwritten by government funding, none of his musicals has yet made a profit, let alone smashed box-office records -- although a 2005 production called "Butterflies" made it to South Korean stages in a 2008 tour.
    "It takes time for people to appreciate this art form," said San Bao.
    "Ten years ago, nobody in China would spend money buying a movie ticket, but now? People don't talk about what movies they watched but about which ones they missed."
    Rave reviews
    Some Broadway shows have captivated Chinese audiences. French revolution epic "Les Miserables" was a hit when it debuted in Shanghai in 2002.
    More recently, a Chinese-language version of "Mamma Mia!" that toured in August 2011 grossed 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) in less than a month and according to the China Daily, a 2013 production of "The Phantom of the Opera" sold out five months before its premiere.
    But high ticket prices mean these shows reach a limited audience, and it's typically only the most accessible Broadway hits that resonate with a Chinese audience, says Zhou Yinchen, the head of the Folk Music and Musical Research Center at Peking University's Academy of Arts.
    "'Mamma Mia!' is entertaining, that's why Chinese accept it," she says. "Of course there are other Broadway musicals but it's only those with the highest entertainment value work in China," she adds.
    Nonetheless, the rave reviews audiences have given to these shows make musical producers like San Bao confident that combining Broadway showmanship with Chinese plot lines will one day result in a sure-fire hit.
    Cartoon character
    As well as China's imperial past, San Bao has also made shows about a Chinese cartoon character similar to Tintin, and the Chinese Communist Party's Long March -- a 6,000 mile journey that helped cement Mao Zedong's stature as a great leader.
    San Bao says one of the biggest challenges he faces is the dearth of all-round performers.
    Few Chinese actors and actresses have equally strong singing and dancing skills that musical theater requires, he said.
    And while China does offer some undergraduate courses in musical theater, these departments are relatively new and the level of expertise is not deep.
    Xu Luyang​, a classical music critic, also says that musical productions often can't afford the high pay necessary to attract top talent.
    "The musical industry is China is still immature," he said.
    Rather than continuing to rely on the government's largesse, San Bao says he is looking for investors to fund his next project and hopes that will give him freer creative rein.
    "The reason why I produce musicals and will keep doing it is because I like it very much."