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FEATURE: French musicals striking a chord in China


The audience cheer the actors at the end of the French musical The Red and the Black at Beijing Century Theater in China on Oct. 25.

Photo: AFP

French musicals that were hits in their own nation have struck a chord and found a second life far from home — in China, where fans sing along with the foreign cast.

Western musicals have grown in popularity in China, with fans flocking to classic West End and Broadway shows such as Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but French shows have given those musicals a run for their money, with Notre-Dame de Paris; Mozart, L’Opera Rock; and The Red and the Black filling theaters.

French musicals have gained fans in a communist-ruled nation that sees itself as the heir of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary government that briefly ruled the French capital in 1871.

Notre-Dame de Paris, which is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, was one of the first French musicals to break into the Chinese market in 2002.

The show sold out this summer after the iconic Parisian cathedral’s roof burned down.

Hugo and his social stance have found enduring popularity in China and the French author was once included on a list of 100 foreign cultural figures Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) found inspiring.

Les Miserables, Hugo’s revolutionary-themed musical, was rewarded with a 20-minute standing ovation from the audience when it was performed in Shanghai last year, state media reported.

“French shows are generally adaptations of masterpieces or historic events and they reflect the intensity of social struggle,” said Wang Ruiqi, a student enthralled by The Red and the Black.

The rock opera — adapted from French author Stendhal’s classic novel about a young man’s ambitions to climb the social ladder from modest beginnings in 19th century France — began its 50-show tour of China last month.

Most theaters quickly sold out, with tickets going for 1,180 yuan (US$169) — higher than the minimum wage in some regions.

“There’s a real musical culture in China, strangely more than in France,” said Laurent Ban, who plays the bad guy, Monsieur Valenod, in the musical.

Su Dewei, 45, and his wife attended a show in Beijing.

“I often watch musicals online,” Su said. “French musicals.”

In The Red and the Black, he said, “there’s humor and the stage decoration is beautiful.”

China has a rich history of various forms of elaborate operas — though it went through a dark period when the powerful wife of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Jiang Qing (江青), cracked down on the arts during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, but music made a comeback as China opened up to the world following Mao’s death.

Industry data show that 1.6 million people watched 2,460 musicals in China last year, bringing 428 million yuan to the box office — almost double the previous year.

More than half of the shows that made their debut in China last year were English-language musicals, while 35 percent were French, German and Austrian.

Cats was the top seller, taking almost a quarter of the box office, followed by Chicago.

The best-selling French musical was Mozart, L’Opera Rock, which came in fifth, followed by Romeo et Juliette.

Yu Xinyue (俞心悅), who produces The Red and the Black in China, said the distinctive French touch is the ability to express emotions through musicals.

“Anglo-Saxon shows place more emphasis on drama and how to tell stories,” Yu said.

At the Beijing show, the mostly young female audience sang along to the musical’s most famous songs — though many likely did not speak any French.

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