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A Plan to Create Chinese Musicals

Ten years ago, I attended a musical theatre conference at the Beijing Academy of Contemporary Music and gave a presentation on a matter close to my heart: the importance of rhythmic prosody in the marriage of music and lyrics. This matters to me because it is a point of craft, and one that can be taught, in the same way that drawing can be taught. Knowing the points of the craft doesn’t make you an artist, but it does make you a better craftsman.

The opportunity to visit China was a total joy, even though I never got more than a few miles outside of the city of Beijing. There was plenty to discover there. The opportunity to do so and talk about my favorite subject – musical theatre – was a special kind of Nirvana. And I learned that Chinese people like musical theatre as much as we do. Uh – check that. I think perhaps Chinese people like musical theatre even more than we do.

I saw carefully rehearsed scenes from some of my favorite American musicals performed in a spectacular evening at the Beijing Academy. I also saw a performance of Rent at the Beijing Dance Academy. The book was performed in Mandarin and the score was sung in English. Fascinating and completely embraced by the audience the night I saw it.

Yes, yes, I walked on the Great Wall a bit, I visited a silk factory, attended a tea ceremony for tourists in a tea factory, and went to a kind of museum-cum-shop where I saw breath-taking works of ivory being carved and had the opportunity to purchase them at prices only millionaires could afford. I also spent a memorable day in Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City where I took a bath in history. Amazing and Informative and Chinese.

Sadly, what I didn’t see on my visit was a Chinese musical. I spoke to some producers who were in the process of preparing a Chinese musical, including one group that was trying to hire a bookwriter/composer team with Broadway credits to bring a Chinese story to life for a Broadway audience. That hasn’t appeared yet, and I am thankful.

I met writers and composers, young and highly motivated people, who wanted to write musicals for Chinese audiences. And I thought to myself, good. Someday a team will write a Chinese musical that Broadway audiences will want to see, and that team will be Chinese through and through. The story they write and the music that decorates it will reflect millennia of history and culture that will be stunning to an increasingly international Broadway audience. Brava and Bravo!

So, when I responded to a Linked-In message from LI Jing at Alibaba’s Entertainment and Culture division I was more than eager to talk about their plans to partner with the Shanghai Grand Theatre to develop new musicals by Chinese writers, including using a system of high school and university programs to help them test shows in development. They hope to create a farm system, if you will, of developing new works and preparing them for commercial production. What a good idea!

Many months later I am humbled and proud to say I am in week 5 of a 10-week workshop for 11 smart and talented Chinese writers, 5 different teams who have been selected to create new musicals in a developmental program sponsored in tandem by the Shanghai Grand Theatre and Mailive, the entertainment division of Alibaba. As usual I have learned much more from these writers than they will ever learn from me.

As one would imagine, conducting a workshop for writers in a foreign language the group leader does not speak is challenging. Fortunately, serendipity reared its lovely head a few weeks before my first communication with the Alibaba folk via Linked-In. Tony Stimac, a director, producer, and nurturer of new works I have known for decades through our membership in the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, called me to introduce me to a recent graduate of the MFA program in musical theatre writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Trinity Chen is the recent graduate, a Chinese national who was moving to Los Angeles where she didn’t know anybody in the musical theatre world. Tony asked me to introduce her to people I know. I did – but quickly decided I wanted to keep her close to me, since I would need her skills as a translator in my attempt to work with Chinese writers creating new works in Mandarin. Trinity is bi-lingual, with Chinese as her primary language, and her MFA from the Tisch program means she knows the “lingo” of musical theatre. Serendipity doesn’t even get close to describing this juxtaposition of events. Miraculous is more like it – and I am not a believer in miracles!

We are halfway through the 10-week program which I have attempted to design to give the writers experience in the rudiments of musical theatre communication. They are performing a series of exercises intended to give bookwriters, lyricists and composers an opportunity to practice the ABCs of the form before launching into a six-month schedule of helping to develop a specific musical with each of the five teams. The staff at the Shanghai Grand Theatre has just asked the writers to respond to a survey about the workshop so soon we should know what they think they are learning. Meanwhile, I am happy to tell you what I am learning right here, right now.

The time is right for a great Chinese musical – and probably more than one. The audience is there, and the writers are there. If the 5 teams I am working with are any indication, a great deal of work has already been done in preparing the current generation of theatre writers in China to create an explosion of exciting musical theatre. They have done their homework. They are determined students. They are culturally aware and proud. The stories they are proposing to tell are imaginative, theatrical, and Chinese to the nth degree. There is, so far, very little for me to do beyond cheerleading from the sidelines.

With the help of Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and number of books written for children and young adults, I am learning to recognize Chinese symbols and coming to grips with the pronunciation of simple words. I will never get it right, but I hope one day I can make myself understood without causing gales of laughter.

I am learning that it is easy and rewarding to work with smart and dedicated writers. They are on time, they upload their assignments early, and they are respectful of the process and each other.

I am learning that Chinese composers develop a unique compositional voice early in their careers. I had no expectations except that during my visit ten years ago I knew there was a supply of talented and educated composers in China interested in musical theatre. I had no idea how rich this supply really is.

I have learned, as one does while growing older, that I am not really needed. However, I have been welcomed and I am very happy to be part of the Fly Plan project.

I am learning, as always, how little I know.



Posted on

August 22, 2021