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If You Can Make It There - Broadway Takes China By Storm

How do you sing "meow" in Chinese?
How do you sing "meow" in Chinese?
Zhang Yan

SHANGHAI - Two weeks ago Cats, the legendary musical with its record $2 billion box office sales and worldwide audience of 73 million people, had its Chinese language premiere in Shanghai. This will be followed by a tour of 162 performances in other major Chinese cities.

Following the success of Mamma Mia!, Cats is the second Chinese adaptation of a musical promoted by United Asia Live Entertainment (UAE). Mamma Mia!, which is currently on its second tour of China, set a record of 191 consecutive performances on its first tour last year and earned 850 million RMB ($134 million) at the box office. 2011 went down as “The First Year of China’s Musicals.”

Whereas Mamma Mia! is a warm family comedy, Cats is much more abstract since its plot is based on T.S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a poem, and it has almost no dialogue.

In addition to understanding the screenplay, the actors need to have excellent physical fitness and staunch willpower. “We have uninterrupted rehearsals sessions from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily with costume and makeup on. The dancing is even harder than on Mamma Mia!” says Mao Haifei who plays the role of Quaxo in Cats after dancing in last year’s version of Mamma Mia!.

Not only are the actors required to maintain the posture and the look of cats all through the musical, but they also have to dance non-stop for 150 minutes in various styles: classical, jazz, pop and rock.

Chinese versions

Whether it’s Mamma Mia! or Cats, the Chinese versions follow the “Original production team plus Chinese actors” format. The copyright agreement alone has hundreds of pages of densely written text specifying each deal. UAE has signed respectively with the owners of the two musicals -- Little Star and Really Useful, both UK companies -- a contract of five years. The costs of the first-round performances are borne by the UAE but are underwritten by local entertainment companies on the second round.

Tian Yuan, the general manager of UAE, does not hide his ambitions for musicals in China’s domestic market. "We are the first ones in China to produce musicals professionally. Mamma Mia!’s Chinese version was our initiation. We are hoping to find a mode of localized musical production, finance and local talent. We’d like to found our own theater, performing groups, and have our own originality."

“A Chinese version makes it easier for the Chinese audience to be fully integrated into the story. The use of Chinese language and Chinese performers draws the audience closer to the show," Tian Yuan says. In Mamma Mia!, local Internet buzzwords are deliberately added to highlight the localization. In the Shanghai premiere of Cats, one of the roles, the "aristocratic cat," said “goodbye” in Shanghainese on stage, attracting the audience’s laughter.

The costs of an original version and a Chinese version differ greatly. The original version of Mamma Mia! introduced in 2007 with 16 performances over two weeks cost 15 million RMB ($2.36 million) in operating costs, whereas its Chinese version costs 30 million ($4.72 million).

“I have a five-year performance cycle to digest this cost. The first year we staged nearly 200 performances and we won’t do less than 100 performances per year from the second year. In total there could be 600 performances in five years," Tian Yuan says -- though he does not disclose any specific figures for royalties.

During the musical production process, the many castings as well as the rehearsals are all subject to the requirements of the UK companies. The attention to details is astounding.

"These foreign firms very much hope that we are able to quickly learn all the aspects of the entire production links and process, and do it 100 percent,” Tian Yuan explains. "These musicals are not "Made in China," but "Chinese versions' and the quality must be guaranteed so that whether it is in London, Germany, Russia, South Korea or Japan, the audience sees the same quality. Only good quality will sustain good vitality.”

Bringing a Chinese touch

Jo-Anne Robinson has worked on both the Broadway and the West End version of Cats for 30 years. Today she is directing and choreographing the Chinese version. She explains that right from the start of the creation there is a blueprint. The music, dance and acting are all planned out in accordance with this blueprint.

“Nevertheless, Chinese actors are not carbon copies. They need to bring richness to each cat in accordance with their own understanding of the musical,” she says.

The Chinese version has the most cats on stage since its creation, a total of 34. The Broadway version has only 24 to 26 cats.

The people working on the Chinese version were particularly concerned about the adaptation of the Cats theme song, Memory. Music director Fiz Shapur says that, "Taking into account the Chinese syllables, phonology, and in particular the tones, is very difficult. The slightest mistake will cause ambiguity.”

The biggest challenge lies in finding the right cast. “There aren’t many actors in China who can act, dance and sing. Besides, it’s rare to find among the few who meet the basic requirements someone who has any experience in musicals,” Fiz Shapur points out.

However, after seeing the passion of Chinese audiences for Mamma Mia!, the Chinese version of Broadway musicals looks destined for great success. When the familiar tune of ABBA’s Dancing Queen started, almost all the audience got up and applauded with excitement. They waved their arms, whistled, screamed and jumped up and down. The boundary of the stage is blurred and the theater becomes a venue for a giant party. One does not see this often in reserved China.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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