Producers have been privately saying for months that China was the big new territory for musicals, a potential goldmine. Now Cameron Mackintosh is putting on his mining hat with the creation of a new production company: the first such formal, long-term partnership between Western and Chinese stage producers.
Having been one of the Western producers to take shows across in English language versions (he previously took Les Misérables, with a cast largely drawn from the American tour — plus notable additions including Colm Wilkinson’s last bow as Jean Valjean), Mackintosh recently told this writer that he will never again take a show there in English. Mackintosh and other producers hope to seed the market with shows performed in Mandarin to attract audiences beyond the English-speakers.
With producers such as Disney’s Thomas Schumacher and Robert Nederlander waiting and watching in the wings (they’re both in talks to bring shows including, respectively, The Lion King and 42nd Street), Mackintosh has joined the Shanghai Grand Theatre to create the new company. During its first ten years, it will present at least four musicals for extended runs, in Mandarin, and featuring Chinese performers, musicians and technical staff. The first production will be Les Miz, which is scheduled to open in 2007.
The venture will include the building of a new theatre dedicated to long runs of musicals. The Shanghai Grand are initiating the build, but Mackintosh told Playbill.com he expects to be involved, at least on a consultancy basis. “I hope the new theatre will be ready by the time we come to do Les Misérables,” said Mackintosh. It’s an important, perhaps crucial factor, because the Shanghai Grand itself only schedules relatively short runs — a maximum of around four months per show. And there are precious few other theatres in China capable of housing a big musical.
For that matter, according to Mackintosh, there are no other theatres in the country which could facilitate such a partnership. “The Shanghai Grand is the only theatre with the managerial expertise to do this,” says the impresario, who has been working intensely on this deal for three years (though he has been in general talks for something along these lines for seven or eight years). “There are two or three other theatres in Shanghai but they’re not in the same league," Mackintosh added. As for other shows which are in talks for a China visit, there won't be a monopoly. The Shanghai Grand will import clients as before: “Their operating of the Shanghai Grand itself, even if we are the client, is separate to this deal. They’ll still be programming short runs as before,” said Mackintosh.
When Mackintosh visited the Shanghai Conservatoire in the late 1980’s, he was not only impressed at the talent of the students, but the fact that they were all enthusiastically studying The Sound of Music. Ever since, he has nurtured a desire to kick-start musical theatre in the country.
Mackintosh has previously established local production partnerships in other territories, which have led to the establishment of musical theatre in those regions. South Africa is one instance, another is Holland where Joop Van Den Ende produced Mackintosh’s shows locally, leading to the establishment of his company Stage Holdings (now an international power player).
Qian Shijn, artistic director of the Shanghai Grand, said in a statement, “In the past, ticket prices have been high to support the cost of bringing huge international tours with the necessary backstage infrastructure [Mackintosh personally put in $1 million to fund the previous, loss-making Les Miz visit]. A Chinese production of Les Misérables will utilize the enormous talents of Chinese performers, orchestras and stage crews. We hope that an extended run will enable us to substantially lower the ticket prices from those that have had to be charged in the past.”
Mackintosh added, “If Les Misérables proves to be a success, we have several other internationally acclaimed musicals which we would like to present firstly in Shanghai and Beijing and then tour into other cities in China.” A nationwide talent hunt for Chinese performers will begin in China later in 2005.