Shanghai’s Musical Theater Scene Sputters Back to Life

Shanghai’s Musical Theater Scene Sputters Back to Life


Lockdowns aside, audience interest is on the rise, but the industry is still searching for a hit.            

On a May 20 livestream, the theater and production company Shanghai Culture Square shared its event calendar for 2022. Announced at the tail end of the city’s two-month lockdown, the slate featured 13 Chinese-language plays and four widely acclaimed musicals including “Stable Happiness” and “Orphan Zhao,” and signaled a kind of dogged optimism. “No matter what time it is, don’t forget that there is still a garden in your heart,” read the tagline.

The announcement took the city’s musical lovers — myself included — by surprise. The lockdown and other pandemic controls have hit the entertainment industry hard; even now, as the city reopens, strict “zero-COVID” rules are keeping theaters and other performance halls quiet. At the sight of the calendar, I allowed myself a glimmer of hope.

For all the challenges the industry faces, the past few years have seen the emergence of a rather odd phenomenon in Chinese musical theater — that is, it has actually been growing in popularity, thanks in no small part to a number of hit musical theater-inspired televised variety shows.

Like rap and stand-up comedy before it, reality programs like “Super-Vocal” have led to an explosion in interest among young Chinese in musical theater. That show, with its cynical pandering to China’s idol and fandom cultures, bore little resemblance to traditional musical theater, but it helped prime the pump for last year’s “The City of Musicals,” developed for Shanghai’s Dragon Television by the team behind the popular idol competition “Produce 101.”

From the very beginning, “The City of Musicals” tried to distinguish itself from “Super-Vocal,” positioning itself not as an idol-driven show, but as a way for ordinary viewers with little knowledge of musicals to learn about the genre. Rather than attempting to adapt musical theater to the talent show format, the show went in the opposite direction, emphasizing theatrical elements like live performance and dramatic narrative.

A performance from the TV show “The City of Musicals.” From @东方卫视爱乐之都 on Weibo

Judging from the ratings, “The City of Musicals” has not replicated the viral success of “Super-Vocal,” but it’s still decent television and has helped popularize the genre among the broader public.

More interesting to me, however, is how the show has been received by musical lovers. A televised variety show can’t compare to the experience one gets seeing a performance in person, and it shouldn’t be judged according to the same standard. But a stubborn bias has led musical geeks to take to social media to express a litany of grievances, including its focus on the actors, its reality TV elements, and the quality of its stage performances. These critiques are mostly a way for fans to flaunt their intellectual bona fides, but they confirm what we’ve seen countless times before: Pushing theatrical performances into the mainstream risks alienating the genre’s core fanbase.

Ultimately, the development of musicals must depend on the theater, not variety shows. The good news is that new platforms are emerging to showcase the country’s surprisingly diverse musical theater scene.

Pandemic challenges aside, the past five to six years have seen a resurgence of Chinse musical theater. I consider myself a musical fan, but even I would not have known just how far the country’s Chinese-language musical scene has come in recent years if not for events like the Chinese Musical Awards.

A performance from the musical “Orphan Zhao.” From @雨霁云霏 on Douban

Meanwhile, domestic companies are embracing bold explorations of different subject material and styles, both Chinese and international. “Orphan Zhao,” for example, draws inspiration from German and Austrian musicals’ adaptation of historical movements. Other companies have taken advantage of the booming popularity of televised thrillers among young audiences: Last year, the Miushike production team staged musical adaptations of the hit streaming dramas “The Long Night” and “Bad Kids.” Some creators have also adapted popular works of international literature, such as the classic Japanese novels “Journey Under the Midnight Sun” and “No Longer Human,” borrowing Broadway’s approach to source material.

Then there are the so-called national-style musicals, which have profited from a renewed interest in Chinese culture and tradition. These include older pieces, like 2007’s “Butterfly,” as well as newer productions, such as last year’s “Last Ruler of Southern Tang.”

There’s a problem, however: The music simply isn’t all that good. Despite years of investment and progress, Chinese musicals haven’t produced a single crossover hit.

Part of the issue is that creators seem to relish their outsider status. After a performance, they’ll often take the stage to bombard audiences with anecdotes about how arduous the creative process was, as if that justifies their show’s weaknesses. By emphasizing their “sacrifices” and hard work, as though they’re underdog amateurs rather than professional artists, they’re betting on a small number of urban middle-class consumers sharing their faith in the industry’s future.

Beggars can’t be choosers, however. The underlying question asked by “The City of Musicals” is straightforward: “Can Shanghai become a globally recognized musical center?” That still seems a distant dream. But Shanghai Culture Square’s schedule livestream was a declaration of sorts: We haven’t given up. As as a fan, if they don’t give up, I won’t, either.

Wu Changchang is an associate professor of journalism at East China Normal University.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A performance from the TV show “The City of Musicals.” From @东方卫视爱乐之都 on Weibo)


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