The stage is where it happens

The passion and elegance of actual human beings on stage can never be matched by cold images on the screen.

By Mariette Tunn

Of course, technology has affected how we work and play, and in many ways, for the better; However, would that smile on Mona Lisa be as fascinating as it is in the iconic portrait hand-painted by da Vinci if it had been a photograph portrait taken with a camera?

Any theatre musical enthusiast would tell you that watching a musical on reel is not the same as watching a musical in real … life.

Returning to the theatre to experience live action is not going against the flow of technology.

The warmth and fluidity of actual human beings on stage can never be replaced by cold images on the screen.

Broadway and West End

Broadway is the name of a street in Manhattan, New York, but it has evolved into a symbol of American stage theatre.

It all started in 1750, when the city’s first resident theatre was built. Plays, operas, and dances were all different items back then.

On September 12, 1866, more than a century later, the audience in New York was treated to an entirely new experience when The Black Crook premiered, complete with dance and original music.

That was the first English-language theatrical performance that could be defined as a musical.

Today, New York’s Broadway and London’s West End are the world’s two most prestigious commercial musical theatres.

The length of a musical’s run is determined by ticket sales. Les Misérables, which has been performing since October 8, 1985, and The Phantom of the Opera, which has been performing since October 9, 1986, are the two longest-running musicals in London’s West End history.

These two musicals have been performed 13,964 and 13,629 times, respectively, according to their records.

Theatre musicals in China

The traditional Chinese opera could be considered a sort of theatre musical with its orchestra and stage props, and effects.

A few Western musical theatre troupes made their way to China after it opened its doors to the world in 1978.

After a long period behind the red curtain, was it the novelty of foreign faces that drove the Chinese public to the theatre, or was it the appreciation of western musicals?

Locally produced musicals did not generate the same level of ticket sales as imported musicals.

Locally produced musicals were regarded to be poor in quality, a view that could do with a review, especially when the imported musicals were in a language that the locals couldn’t comprehend.

When actors outnumbered the audience

Tickets to local musicals could not be sold ten years ago. At the time, students majoring in Musical Theatre at Beijing University claimed that they had to give out tickets for free in order to fill the seats.

The cast outnumbered the audience at times, and there were occasions when there was no audience at all.

Even so, the shows continued. Musical actors found it difficult to make a living just from musicals.

Many would-be musical actors had been scared off by such prospects.
Many of those who stayed for the sheer thrill of acting in musicals had to boost their income by taking up gigs singing.

Musicals, on the whole, did not take off in the same manner that other forms of entertainment, such as pop music and films, did.

It wasn’t until the 2010s that scenes in musical theatres began to shift, particularly in the audience.

“On the Road” to success

During the pandemic, China was able to rapidly pick up the pieces, and theatre musicals were soon picking up the pace.

Theatrical musicals have been on the rise in China since the second half of 2020.

China’s very own musical On the Road hit the road in December 2020. The musical, adapted from a popular television series, was produced by Beijing Performance and Arts Group and performed by the Beijing Dance Drama and Opera troupe.

The primary character, Yao Yuan, was played by Ayunga, a well-known musical actor. Ayunga was also on the creative team for the musical.

He wrote a few compositions, including the musical’s main track: He chu shi yuan fang (“where is the far side?”).

The musical is written in a language that the local audience understands, and the story is based on a culture that they can identify with.

Tempo rising

Shanghai has long had a thriving musical theatre scene. Beijing had never exhibited much interest in musicals until recently.

The premiere of Romeo and Juliet in Beijing on Christmas Eve 2021, however, was a spectacular success far exceeding expectations: every show was sold out.

Tickets were believed to be sold out within a minute after the online ticket counter opened.

The musical, which stars Ayunga in the lead role of Romeo, is the first to be entirely translated into Chinese.

China’s first state-owned musical troupe

Things are starting to move. Beijing Performing Arts Group is a state-owned performing arts institution.

It has huge assets, including the complete collection of domestic performing works in its library.

On January 25, this year, the company named Ayunga, a highly-acclaimed musical actor, as the head of China’s first state-owned musical theatre troupe.

Ayunga is not only gifted in the arts, but also in business operations and management.

It is true that if there is a conversation about musicals, the name Ayunga is so often mentioned: Ayunga has become synonymous with musicals in China.

Ayunga Musical

Ayunga is a Mongolian-born Chinese national. He moved to Beijing at the age of 17 from Inner Mongolia, a Chinese autonomous region, to pursue his dream of becoming a dancer.

However, fate had other plans for Ayunga when he was discovered by Zhang Xu, the Dean of Education at Beijing Dance Academy, who suggested him to pursue Musical Theatre as a college major.

Ayunga has always enjoyed being on stage. In his mind, he envisaged a future in Musical Theatre entertainment in China that no one else could see or dared to consider at the time.

What Ayunga had was a vision, not an illusion, as many had assumed; he had a dream to realise, and a strong determination to succeed.

Musical tickets were simply not selling when Ayunga initially entered the entertainment scene.

He made it his top priority to educate the public about theatre musicals and to entice them to visit theatres and purchase tickets to see live performances.

Ayunga achieved this with such zest and diligence that musical actors today owe him a debt of gratitude.

The very humble Ayunga, who never takes credit for himself, would attribute the country’s growing popularity of musicals to the combined efforts of all musical actors, art and culture institutions, and various state departments.

China’s musical theatre fame develops alongside him as he pursues his goal.

Super Vocal

Super Vocal 2018, a competition for singers trained in classical, bel canto, and musical performances, was instrumental in bringing musical actors into the spotlight and opening doors for many of them.

Musicals have been gaining popularity since the 2018 Super Vocal. There are a number of major musical theatre events and activities, including the Shanghai International Musical Festivals 2020 and 2021, for which Ayanga served as the image ambassador, and the City of Musicals, for which Ayanga is a judge.

Curtain-up for Chinese theatre musicals

Chinese theatre musicals have a golden glow rising from below the horizon. There are several reasons to believe so: the audience is rapidly expanding; there is more employment in the sector; and more musicals are being created in the country than ever before.

For the first time, there aren’t enough musical actors to go around.
A musical is more than just a piece of entertainment. It reflects the culture of the time and place, just like art and literature.

China has a long and colorful history. By virtue of its traits, the centuries-old Chinese opera, which is a component of Chinese culture, can be considered a form of theatre musical.

The concept of spaghetti is supposed to have originated with Chinese noodles. Looking at the timeline, could western musicals have their roots in Chinese opera as well?

This article reflects the author’s point of view.

A musical is more than just a piece of entertainment — it’s the culture of the time and place, just like art and literature.

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