A partnership between composer and musical theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and Shanghai Media Group, one of China’s largest media and cultural conglomerates, has the potential to add an exciting new dynamic to the country’s biggest city.
The partnership will work to develop the musical theater industry in China by creating Chinese versions of Webber’s well-known stage productions. It will also offer training to help develop China’s dancing and acting talent, kicking off with a Chinese produced version of the Webber work, Tell Me On A Sunday.
The show, originally about a girl moving from London to New York, will tour China in 2018 with a modified Chinese-language and Chinese-produced version and a story that has the protagonist as a modern Chinese girl leaving Shanghai.
Max Alexander, managing director of Really Useful Group, said the partnership would help transform Shanghai into a regional centre of musical theatre that will outgrow Broadway within ten years.
“Already Shanghai is the Broadway of Asia but there is no reason why it can’t go far beyond this,” he said.“China should be able to sustain shows and tours on the same level as the most successful ones in the world but to date that has not happened… But we are not new here. Andrew [Lloyd Webber] first took his music to China, in the form of a concert at the Great Hall of the People in 2001, and since then we have sent numerous shows there. Phantom of the Opera has toured and Cats has toured more than once. The thing is the tours just don’t last very long.”
Lloyd Webber’s works, that also include Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and School of Rock, are some of the most popular music shows ever staged and, according to the Really Useful Group, were seen globally by more than 20 million people in 2016. Yet, Alexander said this level of success had remained elusive in China.
“Take Phantom of the Opera,” he said. “It’s now in its fourth year in the [United] States and when the tour goes back to cities it has already played, it is more popular than it was first time around. Or in Stockholm, with a population of something like two million, Phantom just ran there for a year and was absolutely full every night. But if we take Phantom to Shanghai – with a population of something like 20 million population – past experience tells us it might only last three weeks.”
Alexander cites a list of interwoven cultural and market conditions that have limited Really Useful Group in China. The country does not the same strong tradition of musicals that are loved in Europe or the States, he says, and that means top homegrown talent is harder to find. And this is exacerbated by the fact most musicals that tour China still do so in English, which lowers brand awareness, both about Lloyd Webber’s work and the whole musical theatre format.
“Then there’s been the problem of assurance,” he says. “Sometimes, we have not known how we are going to get money out. And we have had logistical issues, around the size and quality of the theaters. Ultimately we had not found the right large-scale partner, but now, with Shanghai Media Group, we have been very lucky. They are superbly competent and their resources are vast, in terms of marketing, access to television, government, talent and access to the most beautiful theaters. It has been, in many ways, a great meeting of minds.”
Alexander says in the past they have typically taken Chinese tours to Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and perhaps one or two other cities, but they hope to take Tell Me On A Sunday to at least 10 cities in China and possibly 20.
Intriguingly the tour will launch not in Shanghai but in London, at a Chinese Ambassador’s gala show at the Really Useful Group’s own theatre, the London Palladium, in April.
“There are more than 200,000 Chinese in the UK, so why not?” says Alexander. It will then return to tour China in September 2018.
“This really should be the start of something much bigger,” he says. “Shanghai Media Group are very aware of a local growing capacity but lack the software to seize on that. We don’t have capacity in China, but we have the best software in the world. It does seem like a good match.”