China to stage 'Les Miserables'

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BEIJING -- A Chinese-language "Les Miserables" will premiere at Beijing's new National Theater in November 2008, the first musical staged by British theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh in a joint venture unveiled Monday with the government-run China Arts and Entertainment Group.

The localized production of the musical based on Victor Hugo's 130-year-old epic -- staged by the show's original directors, Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird -- will be funded by investments raised by the staff of the Beijing office of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., run by David Lightbody, and China Arts and Entertainment Group, an affiliate of China's Ministry of Culture, Mackintosh said.

Investors from China, South Korea and Australia, among other countries, already see China as the next great musicals market, Mackintosh said in an interview.

"Shanghai and Beijing want to be the next London and New York for musicals. If either even becomes as successful as 'Chicago' in my lifetime, I'll be immensely satisfied," said Mackintosh, who has worked in the theater for 40 years.

The Chinese version of "Les Mis" -- at 22, the world's longest-running musical –- will be an encore for the play here as Mackintosh first brought it to Shanghai's Grand Theater in 2002, to "test the waters."

"None of these traveling productions make money," Mackintosh said, citing the cost of moving expensive sets and the incidentals for a traveling cast and crew. "We all recognize you have to expose the audience to see if they like these kinds of shows and we found that they do."

Mackintosh and Nunn will travel to China this year seeking musical talent for "Les Mis," said Mackintosh, who on Tuesday will revisit the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, where he first got to know some of the students five years ago.

"Now that this is a reality, I'm going back to hear what questions they have for me about the future of musicals in China," he said.

Once the cast is chosen, rehearsed and ready to perform, it will take its first bow in the smaller of the National Theater's auditoriums. Mackintosh said the theater was right for "Les Mis," but that he is looking at several other theaters as the potential home for future shows.

Like the Shanghai Grand, at which Mackintosh also staged "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" over the past few years, the National Theater, now under construction, will not make it a custom to run a single production for long stretches, as is common at many West End and Broadway theaters, he said.

"That's not what they're designed to do," Mackintosh said, adding that he and his Chinese partners believe that within a decade there could be two to four musicals playing in China's big cities at the same time.

Another musical import, "42nd Street," kicked-off a seven–city tour of China with a two-week stand in Shanghai, the first China production by Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, whose President, Robert Nederlander, Jr., said then, "We plan to bring three shows to China each season." (HR 9/5)

Zhang Yu, president of CAEG, said in a statement that Mackintosh "will inspire and stimulate innovation in our own musical theater market" by "attracting new audiences with affordable and easy to appreciate musical offerings and training a young generation of local musicians and production professionals."

Mackintosh said that though he was confident his shows could sell out a house full of expensive tickets, he would promote affordable seating as an investment in the future.

Following "Les Mis" in 2009 will be a return engagement of "Mamma Mia!" the hit love story by Judy Craymer set to the pop songs of 1970s Swedish supergroup ABBA. The musical recently completed an 11-night run in Beijing.

"I don't think the Chinese knew the music, but they loved the story and found it infectious," Mackintosh said.
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