In China, six-pack abs are out and brains are in. Or at least that’s what Disney thinks.
The American entertainment giant is adapting its hit franchise High School Musical for a Chinese audience. In the original film series a basketball jock and a science nerd are brought together by their passion for song. They overcome the odds to win an inter-school singing competition.
But in the Chinese remake, the jock is swapped for a poet.
“Our [local] partners think that in China, you might be more attracted to the smart and thoughtful guy,” Jason Reed, manager of Walt Disney Studios International Production, told the China Daily. “He [the protagonist] is a thoughtful, intelligent and studious young man who is really defined by his skill and academics.”
The new version will also be set at a university. This makes sense – given the life of a Chinese high school student is all work and little fun. “In China, students in high school are so focused on academics that it wasn’t realistic to portray them singing and dancing in the way that American high school students have time for,” Reed observed.
The switch in location renders the film’s name (Disney High School Musical: China) a tad problematic. Given the brand equity that’s been built around the High School Musical franchise, a renaming as ‘University Musical’ probably wasn’t up for debate.
The film will be a co-production with Chinese companies Shanghai Media Group and Huayi Brothers (see WiC34), allowing it to bypass China’s annual quota of 20 foreign films. The movie has begun filming in Shanghai and stars six young actors drawn from across China.
“Chinese audiences love a great story in a film,” said Stanley Cheung, executive vice president and managing director of Walt Disney Company Greater China. “Our local adaptation promotes classic values of teamwork, optimism, friendship, pride and the spirit of self discovery, all of which are highly appreciated by Chinese.”
Perhaps the remake could herald a new era for musicals in China. There has been talk of developing a national theatre hub in Beijing, to create a Chinese-equivalent of New York’s Broadway or London’s West End.
It’s definitely a new genre for most people outside of Beijing and Shanghai, says the People’s Daily.
“In some cities in China, you still have people with no idea of what a musical is,” says Chen Jixin of Beijing Oriental Broadway, a local theatre company. “We’re still laying a foundation for the appreciation of musicals. We’re not at the stage where you can talk profits yet.”
The price of tickets doesn’t help either. Good seats at the top rated performances in China – such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber shows – can cost up to Rmb600 ($88) or 10 times a trip to the local cinema.
But change is afoot. Meng Jinghui, arguably the most influential Chinese theatre director, who previously directed the popular play Rhinoceros in Love (see WiC6), has forayed into musical theatre.
His first musical The Murder Case of the Hanging Garden has just finished a 100-show run this month, to popular acclaim. The story revolves around the disappearance of a real estate tycoon, Chairman Wang.
“If I didn’t create a musical, Chinese audiences could only see silly home-made so-called musicals, or old Western productions performed by low-class touring companies,” says Meng. He is promising to stage at least one musical a year for the next five years.
Disney High School Musical: China is the first truly nationwide screening of the genre. So, Meng’s efforts notwithstanding, the fate of the format is probably less in his directorial hands and more in those of a poetical university student and his lyrical girlfriend.
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