China's Musical Theatre Origins

Mainland China musical theatre from the west in early modern history
(since the foundation of People’s Republic of China in 1949)

DEATH OF A SALESMAN 1983 Beijing Arthur MillerArthur Miller’s non musical play DEATH OF A SALESMAN broke ground by opening on May 7, 1983, at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, directed by Arthur Miller using an all-Chinese cast starring Ying Ruocheng.

Foreign-language imported musicals lately dominate consumer interest in the mainland Chinese market where high-ticket prices are influenced by city and title. The market has seen fluctuating growth in revenue over the years with total ticket income in 2017 reaching USD $38 million where nearly half was generated by import musicals. Mandarin-version productions and original Chinese musicals split the other half.

Central Government policy, coupled with consumer interest in foreign luxury/non-essential goods, simultaneously with the wider accessibility and appetite for global travel and digital forms of foreign musical theatre, aided by provincial and local government policies particularly in 1st-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou/Shenzhen, older more traditional generation dying off, and emerging social class structures with the rapidly growing middle class representing about 25% of the entire population looking for experiences all assisted with the development of the early days of the marketing opening.


Music Man (1987 Beijing)

MUSIC MAN 1987 Beijing posterTHE MUSIC MAN

The first foreign musical in China since 1949, THE MUSIC MAN opened May 8, 1987 with an all-Chinese cast in a full-scale production at Beijing’s Tianchao Theater for 15 performances. A collaboration between the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the Chinese Theater Association, the Central Opera Theater of Beijing, and the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange

Directed by George C. White (also founder and chairman of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center) with Choreography by Lynn Britt, Scenery based on original designs by Howard Bay (who passed away during pre-production) and Costumes Designed by Pearl Somner.

Originally planned to be OKLAHOMA! Until local Chinese partners thought the Agnes de Mille choreography and simultaneous singing would be too complicated for Chinese performers so the Chinese proposed FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, but American partners resisted. They then proposed MAN OF LA MANCHA until Chinese partners decided the rape scene would be inappropriate for Chinese audiences, before both partners agreed to switch to THE MUSIC MAN.

Auditions for the local Chinese 32-member chorus, 24 ballet dancers, 17 principals, 15 children’s brass band and an orchestra of 60 musicians was done in Beijing in October 1986 led by Director George C. White.

Starring Wang Xingna as Harold Hill and Li Zhigang, as Mayor Shinn

The production was translated into Chinese but the only other apparent concession to Chinese culture was a Chinese flag carried with an American one in the final scene. The poster translation of THE MUSIC MAN title 东器雅错共 reads “The Man Who Sells Instruments”. Ticket prices began from RMB 1.

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On May 9, 1987, THE FANTASTICKS simultaneously played in Beijing with the run of THE MUSIC MAN prior to a tour to Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou, sponsored by the Chinese Dramatists Association, the Eugene O’Neill Opera Center and China’s Central Opera Theater.

B. Rodney Marriott, associate artistic director of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, directed a mostly operatic company.

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杨澜视线》Yang Lan Horizon 1996 ChinaIn 1996, in conjunction with Shanghai Dragon TV, entrepreneur and TV hostess Yang Lan (杨澜) produced a program “Yang Lan Horizon” (杨澜视线), introducing US performing arts in 20 minute episodes. The program first broadcast Broadway-trained performer Fei Xiang (Kris Phillips) who presented musical theatre productions to Chinese audiences. Fei Xiang was well-known as a Taiwanese-American pop singer, performed on nationwide TV shows produced by China Media Group. His performances on Spring Festival Gala quickly made him become the most influential pop singers in mainland China during the 1980s. In 1991, Fei Xiang starred in MISS SAIGON and then moved to the USA to develop his career. Fei Xiang returned to mainland China in 1997 and featured in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s MASTERPIECE in 2001.

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Japan’s Gekidan Shiki Theatre Company brought Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to China opening on October 22, 1999, in order to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China Cultural Exchange Agreement and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 1999 Beijing PhotoDirected by Isamu Furusawa and co-directed by China’s Zhou Qixun, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST ran for more than 60 performances in a production costing more than USD $2.4 million.

In early 1999, Gekidan Shiki held auditions throughout China, casting the show with performers ranging from in age from 16 to 24. In August 1999, Gekidan Shiki rehearsed in Yokohama for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST with its Japanese and about 30 Chinese cast members prior to traveling to Beijing for the opening.

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MASTERPIECE 2022 Beijing PosterAndrew Lloyd Webber’s MASTERPIECE

Presented in concert on September 30, 2001 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing incorporating the best-known songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals.

MASTERPIECE starred Elaine Paige along with Sandy Lam, Kris Phillips (Fei Xiang), John Bowles, Coco Lee and Tony Vincent joined by a company of performers drawn from the U.K., U.S., and Australia and a 60-piece orchestra led by Patrick Vacciarello and Directed and Choreographed by Jo-Anne Robinson.

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Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s LES MISÉRABLES played 21 performances from June 22, 2002 until July 7, 2002 at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, performed in English, chiefly the North American national tour, with principals being culled from various international casts. Scenery from the UK and USA, lighting from Brazil, and global crew were brought together.

An invitation from the Chinese government to the UK’s Department for Culture prompted the event. The UK culture office then contacted producer Cameron Mackintosh regarding the show.

Starring Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Michael McCarthy as Javert, Carmen Cusack as Fantine, Peter Lockyer as Marius, Christopher Mark Peterson as Enjolras, Sandra Turley as Cosette, Ma-Anne Dioniso as Eponine, J.P. Dougherty as Thénardier, Aymee Garcia as Madame Thénardier along 28 actors with a local Shanghai girl, Wang Xiaochen, playing little Cosette. Nearly 40,000 tickets for the 3-week run ranged in price from RMB 100 to RMB 1,200 all sold out. An investment of RMB 10 million, returned, according to the Shanghai Grand Theatre, box office sales of RMB 12 million.

The production, featured in a BBC documentary, continued onto Seoul for 4-week run before returning to the USA.

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Richard Cocciante’s NOTRE DAME DE PARIS, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, played in December, 2002 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for 5 performances then in Shanghai January 22-26, 2003. Asian debut for NOTRE DAME DE PARIS, to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of the French writer.

Presented by Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group, lead presenter, Wang Jiangang. European non-equity touring production.  This show has returned to China several times.

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The Irish dance spectacular RIVERDANCE was staged in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in October 2003 for 6 performances, after being postponed due to the SARS epidemic.  It closed the first Beijing International Drama Festival, prior to another 5 performances in Shanghai.   The Liffey company was led by Joanne Doyle and Conor Hayes

Presented by China Performing Arts Agency (CPAA) lead presenter was Wang Chen. Julian Erskine was senior executive producer. Featured in TV documentary. Ticket prices ranged from RMB 120 to 1,280.

Not really a musical theatre show, but an Irish dance spectacular, a version of which had previously been presented on Broadway. European non-equity touring production, RIVERDANCE has done multiple, multi-city tours of China.

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CATS 2003 Shanghai posterCATS

In 2003, the Australian touring production of CATS ran for 53 shows at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, opening March 28 in Shanghai (at the height of the SARS epidemic) through May 11 at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, returning a profit of RMB 3 million. CATS was the subject of a BBC Omnibus documentary.

CATS 2003 Shanghai PhotoProduced by Pieter Toerien and Really Useful Company Asia Pacific, what began as a South African production of Cats in December 2001 went on to become a World Tour, collecting local and Australian cast replacements as it toured. The Shanghai engagement starred Silindile Nodangalam, Chireen Ferreira, Mark Dickinson and Marcus Desando

CATS has been to China many times. Following its 2003 debut, the show made its second trip in 2004. The Australian production of CATS toured seven cities in southern China in the 2008-09 season.

In 2012, CATS previewed its first Mandarin replica version in Beijing and Shanghai, presented by the Really Useful Company and United Asia Live Entertainment (UALE), the commercial arm of China’s Ministry of Culture.

In 2018, a British production traveled to 13 cities in China during a 21-week tour. The tour was a national hit before it even opened and made CATS the second production that saw over USD 15 million USD at the box-office.

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2004/2005 national tour cities included Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Nanning, Harbin, Shanghai, Beijing, Xiaoshan (Hangzhou), Xi’an, Tianjin.

Produced by Troika Entertainment and Presented by Broadway Asia / local presenters. USA non-equity touring production, returned a profit of nearly RMB 5 million.

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CHICAGO 2004 Beijing PosterCHICAGO

Kander and Ebb’s CHICAGO opened in December 2004 for 3 performances only, a the Great Hall of the People, Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.

Presented by Beijing GHTY Culture and Art Corporation.

USA non-equity touring production.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA played 97 performances at the Shanghai Grand Theatre opening on December 18, 2004 until March 5, 2005, starring Brad Little. Ticket prices ranging from RMB 120 to RMB 2,000 after an investment of RMB 50 million by Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group, Shanghai Grand Theater and Webber’s Really Useful Group.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA returned to Shanghai in 2013 with 64 performances. During this second run, it hit approximately USD 7 million in ticket sales and contributed to ¼ of the total musical theatre box-office receipts for that year. Starring Brad Little.

In 2015 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA played Beijing and Guangzhou and took in a total box office of approximately USD 17 million during its two-month run. This accounted for half of the total musical theatre box-office receipts.

In 2018: Shanghai Media Group Live and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group announced a joint “Phantom China Project”. This five-year plan will consist of the six-month-long China leg of the new English-language world tour slotted for 2020, a national reality TV show to find China’s own musical talents, which then leads to a Mandarin-language production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

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BURN THE FLOOR opened in October 2005 in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People, followed by Shanghai.

Presented by China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG). The show was produced by Australian Harley Medcalf in a non-equity touring production.

BURN THE FLOOR returned to tour China in 2009.

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RENT 2005 China PosterRENT

RENT played in December 2005 at the Beizhan Theatre, Beijing followed by Shanghai as part of  its 10th anniversary tour.

Starring Hong Kong actress and singer Karen Mok as Mimi Marquez

USA non-equity touring production of the “Collins” tour.

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WEST SIDE STORY played at the Beijing Exhibition Centre Theatre in 2006, directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely and produced by BB Promotion, for the Fourth Beijing International Theater Festival by the Chinese Ministry of Culture, China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Beijing municipal government.

German non-equity touring production

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LION KING 2006 Shanghai posterTHE LION KING

THE LION KING played 101 performances from July 18, 2006 until October 8, 2006 at The Shanghai Grand Theatre, presented by presented by The Shanghai Grand Theatre in association with The Walt Disney Company. Ticket prices ranged from RMB 100 to RMB 1,800

The international cast, with 52 performers from 12 countries, included 8 performers from South Africa. It took 136 people to put the show on every night and the physical set travelled to Shanghai in two specially commissioned 747 air freighters. After Shanghai, the production continued onto South Africa.

Toby Simkin presents Musical Theatre history of China


In a 2018 survey from The Beijing News, nearly half of the Chinese audience still prefer imported Broadway or West End musicals, as opposed to local-language productions.

43%  Big Imported Foreign-Language Productions
37%  Mandarin Version Licensed Productions
20%  Original Chinese Musical Productions
Survey from The Beijing News (2018)

The use of original language is seen as an important part in the attractiveness of an overseas production where about 68% believed that the English-language version is more appealing than the Chinese-speaking version.

Although China is home of the world’s largest middle class, musical theatre currently contributes less than 5% of the total ticket income of China’s performing arts industry. In contrast, other Asian markets including Japan and South Korean, theatre productions represent around 50% with steady growth.

Toby Simkin’s Broadway Entertainment, LLC
dba within China as: 沈途彬商务咨询(上海)有限公司

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