China to Open $323 Million Musical Production Center

"The Lion King" is one of a number of Broadway musicals that have toured China in the last decade.

The Langfeng-based center will produce and promote musical theater in the country, with Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" set to be the first production.

Musicals, a still relatively unknown form of entertainment in China, are about to get a big push with a planned $323 million (2 billion RMB) musical production center in the country, according to a report by the China News Service

The center, to be located in Langfang, just 30 miles outside of Beijing, will be a 1 million square foot compound, including theaters, classrooms and related facilities and is set to be completed in 2017. The center will be tasked with not only creating commercially viable musicals in China, but also promoting the art form in the country.

The center is an investment collaboration between the local Hebei province government and the Beijing-based Ovation Cultural Development group. 

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The center's first production is scheduled for later this year — before the center is completed. It will be a Mandarin-language production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, to open in Beijing in November for the first of a hundred performances before touring the rest of the country next year. A Disney film adaptation of Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick, will hit theaters globally on Christmas Day. 

Chinese audiences have slowly but surely been introduced to Broadway and West End musicals over the last decade with Les Miserables, The Lion King and others all having been performed in Shanghai. However, productions were performed in English until 2011's Mandarin-language production of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! The show created a sensation in China with 300,000 admissions and a great deal of press coverage.  

The success of Mamma Mia! pushed the Chinese partners in the production to spread the word on musical theater in the country and look to create homegrown talent — writers, producers and performers — that Chinese audiences would have an easier time connecting with. 

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Li Xiaofei, the general manager of Ovation Cultural Development told the China News Service: "Mamma Mia! and Cats were a great step to introduce musicals in Chinese to audiences here. But apart from the singing, everything else has been done in a Western way by Western production companies, costumes and body language included. We want to further localize the Western art form."

Li said that musicals in China made $37.2 million in revenue in 2013, which was an increase of 20 percent from the previous year. The total number of musical performances in 2013 hit 1,300 (up 50 percent over 2012), and total admissions reached more than 1 million (up 40 percent). 

Li was bullish on the prospects of musicals in China, saying: "The musical market in China is very promising. Unlike some other Western art forms, like opera and ballet, musicals are commercial and entertaining. They don't require professional knowledge to appreciate." 

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