‘Mamma Mia!’ leads the way for a brave new Chinese-language musical theater world

‘Mamma Mia!’ leads the way for a brave new Chinese-language musical theater world

World's first Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!" proves that some things are universal, such as the love of a good cheerful musical
Shanghai Chinese Mamma Mia
Chinese dancing queens for the Mandarin version of "Mamma Mia!"

A long-awaited Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!" staged a preview at Shanghai Daning Theater last month, showcasing ABBA tunes with Mandarin lyrics.

The show is the first of its kind in Shanghai-- a West End musical, using Chinese actors speaking and singing in Chinese. Nobody could predict how the Shanghai audience would react.

So when it played to a packed house on opening night and brought the audience to its feet, crying for more, a collective sigh of relief could almost be heard from the offices of United Asia Live Entertainment (UAE), the show's production company. 

Chinese ABBA tunes might just be the beginning of a whole new era for Chinese musical theater.

More on CNNGo: Video: A sneak peek at the Chinese 'Mamma Mia!'

A pioneering musical

Shanghainese are no strangers to Western musicals.

Since 2002, the city’s flagship Shanghai Grand Theatre has been introducing one big Western musical to Shanghai audiences each summer, including "Les Misérables," "The Lion King" and the original "Mamma Mia!"

But all of these musicals were in English, until now.

Although UAE boasts "Mamma Mia!" to be the first Western musical performed in China in Mandarin, it is actually only a first in Shanghai. Beijing Theater staged a Chinese version of Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast” in 1999, but no similar copyright cooperation has come up in China in the past 12 years.

Nevertheless, the Chinese-language “Mamma Mia!” is UAE’s first step in an attempt to promote Shanghai as the Broadway of Asia.

"'Mamma Mia!' is not the most classic musical, but it is cheerful and easy to understand," UAE's media director Lu Wanjun says.

"We hope that our first localization attempt can be easily understood, and [the audience] can go back home in a happy mood."

Shanghai Chinese Mamma Mia The characters Sophie (left) and Donna (right): Free love is a little difficult to translate into Chinese.

Localization headaches

Producer of the British "Mamma Mia!" Judy Craymer says that localizing a Western musical in China is harder than one would think since China lacks a musical theater culture.

Simply looking for the right talent for "Mamma Mia!" was very challenging for Craymer and UAE. The Chinese production team traveled across the country to look for performers who could sing as well as dance. Hiring the technicians and stage crew with the right experience proved extremely difficult and locating a theater to accommodate the show took a long time.

But above all, the greatest challenge was to translate the English lyrics into Mandarin.

"China has a completely different set of cultural references. So translating the lyrics and the script so as to make sense of the drama and narrative while maintaining the spirit of the show wasn’t easy," Craymer says.

The spirit of the lyrics became more important than a direct translation. So, in "Dancing Queen" the lines "You're a teaser, you turn 'em on/Leave them burning, and then you're gone" became "You trigger his desire, light the fire and leave." 

Translating romance

Traditional love stories like ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ are relatively easy for Chinese to accept, but the story of ‘Mamma Mia!’ is avant-garde to Chinese.— Jin Fuzai, musical professor, Shanghai Conservatory of Music

Jin Fuzai, professor at the Musical Department of Shanghai Conservatory of Music, agrees with Craymer. He thinks that the Chinese lyrics of "Mamma Mia!" are somewhat hard to follow.

"But I think things would get better in the future with improved translation," says Prof. Jin.

Prof. Jin also thinks the story of a localized musical theater should be fully compatible with the Chinese market, and "Mamma Mia!" may not be the best fit.

"Traditional love stories like ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Les Misérables’ are relatively easy for Chinese to understand and accept, but the story of ‘Mamma Mia!’ is avant-garde to Chinese," Prof. Jin says, citing a conversation between the mother Donna and the daughter Sophie as an example.

At Sophie’s wedding, she shows Donna her gratitude by telling her: "I don’t care how many men you have slept with, no matter if it is three or 100."

"Such a line might be acceptable in the Western society, but in China, it is not proper," Prof. Jin says.

Shanghai Chinese Mamma Mia Jazz hands mean the same in any country.

Singing into the future

UAE is determined to push Chinese-language musical theater, one step at a time. The next show will be "Cats," which is tentatively scheduled for next year.

"Many people in China are working on Chinese musicals, and few of them are successful," Lu Wanjun says.

"I think what needs to be done first is learning the experience from foreign countries and accumulating local talent in order to lay a foundation for creating Chinese musicals."

Prof. Jin agrees with Lu and hopes that localizing popular Western musicals will nurture a love of the stage in young audiences who have all but abandoned theater. He is confident that musicals will take off in Shanghai.

"[Musical theater] will be like our TV. In the 1980s, our TV schedule was dominated by foreign dramas, but now it is fully loaded with pure Chinese productions," Prof. Jin says.

More on CNNGo: 6 things you need to know about the Chinese 'Mamma Mia!'

Chinese "Mamma Mia!", July 8-August 5, Shanghai Grand Theatre (上海大剧院), 300 Renmin Da Dao, near Huangpi Bei Lu, RMB 99-880, Tel: + 86 400 818 3333, www.mamma-mia.caeg.cn

Wang Fangqing is a Shanghai-based freelance reporter. She writes about business in English and lifestyle in Chinese.

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