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Ballyhoo of Broadway shuffles off to ... China

By: Campbell Robertson

If starry-eyed young actors dream of making it big one day on Broadway, what do starry-eyed Broadway producers dream of? China, baby.

Next week the Nederlanders, one of the big three Broadway theater owners, are planning to announce the details of a new company they have formed that, among other things, will present and market tours and live entertainment in China. But the entry of the Nederlanders into the Asian market is only the latest sign of how sizzling it has become.

"The Broadway brand is very hot to them," said Simone Genatt, one of the creators of Broadway Asia Entertainment, a company that produces and presents tours in Asia. "There are a lot of theaters going up across mainland China."

The company, Nederlander New Century, to be officially unveiled next week, was first put together a year ago as a joint venture of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment and a China-based group, Beijing Time New Century Entertainment. The timing of next week's announcement was first reported in Crain's New York.

Broadway shows have been in Japan for years, and the touring business has been spreading to South Korea, Singapore and other Asian countries. But China represents a significantly larger marketplace. In September 2005, its Ministry of Culture announced that it would allow foreign investment in the entertainment industry; Nederlander New Century is the first company to be established under the new rules.

Taking Broadway to China over the last decade has been a slow process, and at times a thorny one; presenters sometimes have to cope with a bramble of bureaucracy, and an audience that is by and large unfamiliar with the Western musical.

It doesn't help that most of the productions presented have been in English. Tickets are less expensive there, so the tours need to be produced more efficiently. (Tickets to shows in Japan, if you can believe it, are typically more expensive than Broadway tickets.)

But the rush of eager producers and presenters is growing crowded. At the head of the pack are the New York-based Broadway Asia Entertainment, the British impresario Cameron Mackintosh (who brought a production of "Les Misérables" to China in 2002) and another little company called Disney Theatricals.

But independent tours are dancing into China as well: a tour of "Mamma Mia!" will go to Beijing for a short engagement in August.

The Broadway Asia Company was created in 1991 by Genatt and Marc Routh; two and a half years ago it entered into a formal partnership — creating Broadway Asia Entertainment — with the Frankel/Viertel/Routh/Baruch Group, the producing and management company behind "Hairspray," "The Producers" and the latest revival of "Sweeney Todd." ( Routh, a creator of Broadway Asia, is the same Routh in the production group.)

Broadway Asia, which holds the Asian licensing rights to the Rodgers and Hammerstein library, has already produced a tour of "The Sound of Music" in China. Tours of "The King and I" and Chinese-language versions of "SpongeBob SquarePants Live!" and the Off Broadway musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" are scheduled to begin in the next few months. (The Chinese "I Love You" may also come to New York this spring.)

The company, which has an office in Shanghai, is also producing a tour of "42nd Street," which the Nederlander group will present in some cities.

Genatt said that Broadway Asia was also creating theatrical training schools in several Asian cities, teaching the fundamentals of musical theater performance. Though the labor for the shows is local, the performers in the tours have in most cases come from English-speaking countries.

"We want to help build the infrastructure for the future of Chinese touring," Genatt said, adding that Broadway Asia was one of the producers of a planned $12 million original Chinese musical, "The Monkey King."

Disney Theatricals jumped into the mix in 1995, when "Beauty and the Beast" opened in Tokyo. Four yeas later a licensed Chinese-language production of "Beauty" was presented in Beijing, where it ran for four weeks.

David Schrader, the managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatricals, said that one of the main challenges in many parts of Asia was finding theaters.

Major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have elaborate performing arts centers that play host to orchestral and dance performances, leaving small gaps for theater.

The government is building more theaters and converting some buildings that were meant for other uses.

But given the current landscape, Schrader said, touring is more logical than producing blockbusters from the ground up. That has not stopped Disney from trying for extended runs.

The longest engagement for Disney so far — and for any Western musical, Schrader said — was a 13-week run of "The Lion King" at the Shanghai Grand last year.

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