(This article was scheduled to be in Variety's Broadway and the Road special issue, but got cut for space reasons.)
The results are in on the groundbreaking 100-perf run of "The Lion King" at the Shanghai Grand Theater, and Disney seems happy.
Ron Kollen, senior vice president of international for Disney Theatricals, says the production – the first production of a Disney Broadway show in China – has been playing to near-sellout crowds every week ("This week we've had just 20 empty seats," he said on a recent Friday). He's already received offers to bring the show to other Chinese cities.
"(China) still has along way to go in terms of being a real theatrical market like Germany is or Japan is, but it seems to be on the road to getting there," Kollen says.
The production, which began perfs in July and plays through Oct. 3, fits with Disney's overall plan to target the Chinese market in merchandise, film, television and other areas. The Mouse House, which now has offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, opened a theme park in Hong Kong in Sept. 2005 and is reportedly talks for another one in Shanghai.
Only a handful of major Broadway musicals – including "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "The Sound of Music" – have had major productions in China, and they've typically been in English with surtitles.
The next step will be productions in the local language with local actors, which is what Disney's done with its productions in Japan and South Korea.
"In China, that requires a big investment, and, therefore, recoupment takes forever," Kollen says.
"It's a question of triple threat talent -- it doesn't really exist in China in any major way at the moment," says Simone Genatt, prexy and co-founder of Broadway Asia, a major producer of American musicals in China and other Asian countries. Chinese performers, Genatt says, are "trained to either sing or act or dance. To be able to do Western musicals, you need to be able to do more than once discipline." Chinese actors also have a history of performing in troupes, as opposed to independently picking their own projects, Genatt points out.
Broadway Asia is sending "42nd Street," "The King and I" and a SpongeBob SquarePants musical to China in 2007 and "Cinderella" in 2008. Its production of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" in December will be in Chinese with local actors – a first for a major American musical since at least the 1980s, Genatt says. The company is also exploring establishing musical theater academies in China.
"I was in China in 1989 doing roller skating shows through Chinese dance clubs, because they weren't ready for musicals," Genatt says. "But China's had enormous growth and progression. And they certainly are very, very interested in Broadway."
Despite being in English, "The Lion King" in Shanghai has added jokes that play specifically to the Chinese. For instance, the character Zazu sings a popular Chinese song where he normally sings "It's a Small World," a change the show has also made for other foreign markets.
Kollen found some cultural differences in his dealings with the Chinese. For instance, the Chinese marketing leaned more heavily on photographs than logos. The Ministry of Culture kept tabs on the production but was quite supportive throughout, Kollen noted.
Kollen also found that Chinese auds respond differently from other Asian audiences.
"You go to Japan and people will sit there and not say anything until the end, and then they go wild," Kollen says. "In China, audiences were laughing from the beginning. They were jumping up and applauding."