Producers take a chance on 'Mamma Mia!' in Chinese


The Abba musical has been chosen as the first blockbuster show to be staged in Chinese, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

CHINA’S DANCING queens are gearing up for the curtain to rise on the first Chinese-language production of the Abba musical, Mamma Mia!, in Shanghai tonight, and producers are confident they will thank them for the music.

It is the first time a blockbuster contemporary show like Mamma Mia! has been presented in Chinese in China. It is being staged by a local company in a new translation under the direction of the creative team who put on the musical in London.

Chinese audiences have really taken to western-style musicals such as Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, and The Lion King but they are performed by international touring groups.

To really make them stick in people’s minds, the musicals need to be in Chinese, and this is the first time it will be done by a group where the rights are licensed to a Chinese company.

While the show’s creator, Judy Craymer, will be celebrating a theatrical first and hoping the winner takes it all, she’ll also be watching to see how Mamma Mia! works in Mandarin.

Craymer is banking on Chinese audiences embracing classics such as Super Trouper, Lay All Your Love on Me, Voulez Vous and SOS in the way that audiences have all over the world.

China is where the money, money, money is these days, but Craymer says getting the musical to the stage was pioneering work.

“There’s virtually no infrastructure for commercial musical theatre in China, so finding the talent we needed – the actors, technicians, stage crew and musicians – proved extremely difficult,” she says.

“Locating a theatre to accommodate us took a long time and even translating the lyrics into a tonal language was a major challenge.”

Craymer adds that it is “amazing that Mamma Mia! has been chosen rather than something more traditional”.

“The previews are going very well – the audiences are having a fun time, clapping and singing along,” she says.

“I think it’s great that China chose Mamma Mia!. Women will embrace it and love the optimism and men can associate with the Pierce Brosnan figure.”

More than 45 million people in more than 300 cities worldwide have already seen Mamma Mia! on stage, but it could soon be available to 1.3 billion people.

Tian Shui, who plays Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep’s character in the film adaptation), is a well-known musical actor in China.

She believes China has a long way to go before it has an infrastructure to put on blockbuster shows, but she says the musical is bound for great things in China.

“The musical will be accepted by Chinese audiences, especially younger people, because of fashion and pop, plus the themes resonate with audiences,” she says.

“This is a great start for the musical in China and, as a Chinese actress, I hope that one day we can also create our own original musical theatre. It’s a long-term target.”

Broadway and London have been here before.

In 2007, British producer Cameron Mackintosh announced plans to stage legendary shows such as Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon in China, while Broadway’s Nederlander produced a Chinese version of Fame at the Central Academy of Drama, having brought 42nd Street to China in 2009.

Littlestar, owners of Mamma Mia!, negotiated the licence deal with the Chinese co-producer, United Asia Live Entertainment, the commercial wing of the ministry of culture.

Linking up with the government helps the producers to get around many of the problems of working in the culture sector in China.

United Asia Live Entertainment president Tian Yuan says the group chose Mamma Mia! because it had a proven track record.

“It will not only give Chinese audiences an excellent show, but also bring advanced techniques and experience from abroad, which will enrich Chinese culture and our ability to create our own original productions,” he says.

David Lightbody, executive producer of the Chinese version of Mamma Mia!, says he knew it was going to be a hit after three key stages.

“The first was a good three or four weeks into rehearsals when the director put his head around the door and said: ‘Do you want to see something beautiful?’ It was a scene between Sophie and Bill and they played beautifully, the singing, the dancing and the character acting was all coming together,” says Lightbody, who has spent six years in China trying to get musical theatre off the ground.

“The second time was the first day the band and the company came together. It’s a relaxed, recording studio kind of environment but the mood in the room was amazing, among the Chinese especially, and it sounded fantastic. I thought, this might just work.”

The final point was during the previews, when the audience showed the same kind of enthusiasm that Mamma Mia! generates all over the world.

The government is keen to encourage the development of culture industries such as commercial theatre as part of its latest five-year plan – the Communist Party’s blueprint for economic development – so now is a good time to be staging musicals in China.

Lightbody is certain Mamma Mia! will succeed in China, partly because of the changing attitude to commercial theatre, and partly because Littlestar has really done its homework.

“I say that with experience, having been here for six years,” he adds.

The plan is to tour Mamma Mia! around the country for at least a year, covering major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou after Shanghai.

It will tour more of mainland China next year before heading to Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Singapore.

“Abba has always been a guilty pleasure and I’m sure China will enjoy it as a guilty pleasure too,” says Craymer.

“It’s a show that’s worked universally because people can see themselves on stage.”

““Chinese audiences are the same – there’s a little bit of everyone up there. If you’re going to do musical theatre it might as well be a fun one.”