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A very French 'Roméo & Juliette'
By Li Anlan

THE French musical "Roméo & Juliette" will land in Shanghai on December 22 for a 16-day holiday run at Shanghai Culture Square, the city's new musical theater venue on Yongjia Road.

French musicals are quite distinct from Broadway or West End productions; they tend to be more impressionistic and emotional, with more emphasis on the music itself than on exposition of the story.

Since it premiered in Paris in 2001, the French "Roméo & Juliette" based on Shakespeare's play has been performed in 16 countries and in 12 languages, watched by more than 5 million people.

Musical theater is in its infancy in China, though it's catching on. The construction of Shanghai Culture Square attests to the high expectations for musical theater in China.

Most musicals are foreign imports of hit shows, a couple, such as "Mamma Mia!" and "Cats," have been translated into idiomatic Chinese and given Chinese touches. Both were very successful in first-tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and both are touring nationally.

So far, only a few original Chinese musicals have been staged.

Fei Yuanhong, artistic director of Shanghai Culture Square, says the French "Roméo & Juliette" is very French and was imported because it's quite different from Broadway and West End productions.

It's staged in 18th-19th century French costume.

"The culture of the French people is very unique. It's perceptual and romantic," Fei says.

"French musicals place more emphasis on the music than the drama itself, so they are really great to listen to."

The language tends to be more flowery and emotional and sometimes characters step out of character and make observations about what's happening in the play.

This "Roméo & Juliette" will have Chinese subtitles, but the story is so universally famous that there should be no problem understanding.

"You see a lot of original plays on Broadway and the West End, but many French musicals are adapted from famous stories. So you can dive into the plot line when the music starts," Fei says.

The score by Gerard Presgurvic contains songs in diverse styles. Some are famous and topped the French billboard when the musical premiered a decade ago, such as "Aimer" ("Love") and "Les Rois du Monde" ("Kings of this world"). Together with the dances and often impressionistic stage design, the French shows provide a fresh experience for local audience, according to Fei.

However, introducing foreign musicals is just one way to promote musical theater in China.

United Asia Live Entertainment introduced Chinese versions of two Broadway musicals, "Cats" and "Mamma Mia!"

Last year "Mamma Mia!" was staged in 190 shows in six cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Wuhan and Xi'an - and selling 85 million yuan (US$13.6 million) in tickets.

It is now touring more second-tier cities.

"Cats" was a big success at Shanghai Grand Theater from August to October this year. Today it celebrates its 100th show in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, and moves on to Beijing.

The investment in the Chinese "Mamma Mia!" was around 70 million yuan and for "Cats" it was 70 to 80 million yuan, according to Ma Chengcheng, vice manager of marketing for United Asia Live Entertainment.

The box office for "Cats" was more than 32 million yuan in Shanghai and attendance was more than 90 percent, considered a huge success.

Localizing the Chinese-language musicals helps tell the story, making the story and lyrics easier to understand.

In the Shanghai version of "Cats," which is set in a junk yard, familiar props are used, such as "Xinhua Zidian," the best-selling Chinese language dictionary, mooncake boxes and Shanghai car license plates.

"And for the performances, we added Shanghai dialect and will have some Cantonese when performing in Guangzhou," Ma says.

A well-developed musical market includes regular performances, repertory theater, brand loyalty, touring casts and related industries, such as themed merchandize.

Last year, Shanghai Culture Square imported the French musical "Notre-Dame de Paris," and Fei says tickets for "Roméo & Juliette" are selling better than those for "Notre Dame."

"The market for musicals is developing and getting bigger, but it will take quite some time for the market to mature and for watching musicals to become a lifestyle," Fei says.

On the journey of expanding the musical market in China, United Asia Live Entertainment's ultimate goal is to create original Chinese musical productions, says Ma.

"Next year we may try to make some small-scale original musicals ... (but) it still needs original creations to support the Chinese musical industry," he said.

Pic A: Chinese version of "Cats"

Pic B: Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!"

Pic C: French musical "Roméo & Juliette" will land in Shanghai on December 22 for a 16-day holiday run. It's staged in 18th-19th century French costume.

Date: December 22-January 6, 2013, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Culture Square

Address: 36 Yongjia Rd

Tickets: 80-1,200 yuan

Tel: 6217-2426

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164