A recent production of CRAZY FOR YOU, translated into Mandarin, thrilled audiences in Beijing. We talk to the show’s producer to learn more…
Don Frantz, President of Town Square Productions, served as general manager or producer for several Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, and has directed and/or managed events at Disney World, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and two Super Bowls. Earlier this year, he produced CRAZY FOR YOU with Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama. He recently spoke to us from Beijing.
How did you get involved with theatre in China?
In 2007, I was CEO for Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment’s effort to come over to China and bring musicals over here. With them we toured 42ND STREET and AIDA and FAME. After that, I found a great affection for China, and over the past eleven years have come back here quite often.
And you recently produced CRAZY FOR YOU with Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama. Tell us about the Central Academy.
In 1949, the Chinese government set up these three institutions [the Academies of Drama, Dance, and Music], and only ten years ago did they think, “Gee, we should train our dancers to sing and our actors to dance.” (Laughs) The Central Academy took a special leadership position in that process.
So they embraced the “triple threat” attitude of the American musical?
Liu Libin, the head of the theatre department, said, “We’re gonna do the American musical and teach it to the kids… and invest in our ability to do this.”
The first American musical the Academy produced was FAME. How was that received?
Until that production happened, it was widely believed that the American Broadway musical could never be done in Chinese, because we wouldn’t understand the story, the lyrics couldn’t be translated, and we wouldn’t understand it. But all that went away with that show.
FAME took place in a performing arts school. But CRAZY FOR YOU is set in America’s Wild West, which is so removed from college life in Beijing. How did the Central Academy staff choose it?
In the 1990s, as part of an effort to let culture bring [China and Japan] together, the very famous and successful theatre company in Japan called Four Seasons began a cooperative effort specifically with the Central Academy of Drama. They took some of the students into their theatre company and taught them a musical.
One of the students (who was also a kung fu movie star!) was Liu Hongmei, and she was one of the pink girls in the Japanese production of CRAZY FOR YOU. She came back to China, ascended the throne, and is now chairman of the Central Academy of Drama’s musical theatre department.
So when the second show came up, Liu Hongmei decided it was CRAZY FOR YOU, because you know, the power of the first musical you see or the first musical you do, it’s a lasting memory. In this case, it was both the first musical she saw and did. When we opened it for the first time in 2010, she said, “I waited 19 years for this moment!”
And what did you think of the choice?
When they said the second show we want to do is CRAZY FOR YOU, I thought, “Well that’s just so… American!” It’s so American – the Wild West and everything…
And in Mandarin! How did it translate?
The show was constantly reworked in the translation. We had one translation to start rehearsals six years ago, and it changed and developed, and as we got through this one, everybody realized it could be better and better and better to get all the ideas into it.
What about the archetypes in CRAZY FOR YOU? There’s a nagging mother and her son who yearns to sing and dance; there are city folks and country folks; and there are two hilarious British tourists. Could a Chinese audience relate?
Right now, in China, the idea of a mother wanting a son to be a banker and be in the stock market and not dance is absolutely relatable. Absolutely! [The Chinese] are all chasing after what we would call “The American Dream.” There’s a lot of opportunity, a lot of money, and that relates.
And the idea of the countryside and the city very much is understood here. Today there is a great disparity between the countryside and the city.
What was a challenge was the British couple… part of the character of the British couple was the accent. It’s hard to do Chinese in a foreign accent, so what they ended up doing was Chinese in a dialect accent— something that we think of as funny. So they were comical characters as soon as they walked into the place.
You presented the show without projecting the lyrics, which has been the norm in Chinese theatre.
Yes. Even when a show is done in Chinese here (and still local musicals do this), they put up the Chinese subtitles, because the language is difficult.
It was a big deal when we did CRAZY FOR YOU the first time and they just simply didn’t put up the subtitles. [The cast and crew] were shocked at the different response. You could see the audience— instead of sitting back, looking up and reading, and intellectually processing it, they were instead leaning forward and listening, and getting theatre in a much more visceral way. It was really a delight.
What about casting? I understand you multi-cast the show.
The director said, “This is educational, and we’ve got to give as many people an opportunity as possible.” So there were four different Pollys, four different Bobbys, two different girls who do the tango number, two different Mamas, because one of the Mamas became a Polly. They all laughed because every show, somebody was on for the first time!
But I was really proud that this director put the students and their experience first, before trying to prove to everybody how perfect the show could be.
Throughout China, is there an increased interest in American musicals?
The market is still building. The government has supported musical theatre and put a lot of money into it… they see the musical as a way of sharing their culture on the stages of the world.
A lot of Chinese original musicals are created, but the designers and the musicians and the composers and the writers just don’t understand the structure yet. They haven’t learned it like the actors have learned it, because the actors have done American musicals, so they understand the form and the structure.
So what are Chinese original musicals like? Huge, right?
There are old song and dance troupes, and every city has one. I went to Wuhan, which is a secondary city, and they said, “We have 100,000 singers and dancers. What can you do with them?” (Laughs)
Amazing! And are the design elements like those we see on Broadway?
For a lot of musicals, the design still lags behind, because the top scenic designers have experience in ballet and opera… they’re big open spaces or they’re big clunky sets that don’t move.
The lighting aesthetic is mostly different, too. Because of their history of dance revues and TV spectacles, every lighting designer wants to make the scene more interesting by shining lights in your face. It’s like they don’t trust the performance, so they want to glam it up with spectacle.
But those are some of the things that are gradually going away.
In the course of the ten years, the decibel level of the sound has come way down. We had to fight in the early years, five ten years ago… they would blast the music at you in order that it would be more exciting. We went around, saying, “You’ll make your musicals twice as good if you just turn down the volume!”
And now, more and more American musicals are touring China.
I’m told there were eleven musicals that toured through China last year, American or British musicals. A very smart producer [here] said, “You have to understand; there are no gray-hairs buying tickets to musicals.” The musical audience is in their twenties and thirties—they’re an audience that whetted their appetite on American films.
And they’re learning English.
It’s an amazing transformation, how many people are grabbing on to the English language, because it’s a way to broaden their opportunities. When I go to see a Chinese musical not knowing Chinese, it’s different… it’s pretty tough.
How is your Chinese?
Well, I can run a rehearsal. (Laughs.)
Thanks, Don. And congratulations to you and everyone at The Central Academy of Drama for CRAZY FOR YOU and all of your other projects! Sounds like it’s a thrilling time for musical theatre in China.
It is very exciting. I tell people, “The government has three missions: to get back the islands from Japan, to put a man on the moon, and to get a musical on Broadway.” The three imperatives of the Chinese government! Don’t worry about North Korea… they want those three things!