At 4:30 pm on September 1st, the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Art Center, fans have lined up waiting for quite some time. In five hours, the musical Notre Dame de Paris will put on one last performance in Beijing this year. Earlier that day, the production team announced that all the actors would attend the signing after the show. Fans line up to buy merchandise to have a chance to obtain a ticket for the signing. Despite the language barrier, the French musical enjoyed tremendous commercial and popular success. All 22 performances in Beijing were as well-received as this one. Since July, the musical toured Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, and Harbin, all with high box office. Media started calling this musical “the most well-known musical outside of musical theatre nerds.”
In 1831, the French writer Victor Hugo wrote the book Notre Dame de Paris. In 1998, the french musical adaptation of the novel was created. It became the first French musical to perform in London’s West End. In the past 20 years, this French musical was translated into eight languages, played 4,300 times in 20 countries, and attracted over 11 million viewers all over the world.
The musical is innovative in two ways. First, unlike traditional musicals marketed through Broadway or the West End of London, Notre Dame de Paris was produced and promoted by French company NDP Project from beginning to end. Besides, there is no dialogue in the entire musical and no live band. Bold music and complicated dances make the musical refreshing to the audiences. Musical as a form of performing art is still new for the Chinese audience. So it is surprising to see people singing along to The Age of the Cathedrals in the end. You can see grey-haired elderlies as well as toddlers coming to the theaters for the show. And Zhang Weigang, chairman of Joy Way Holdings, made all this happen.
Zhang told CMBN that viewers of Notre Dame are mostly 30-40 years old. Another french musical Joy Way imported to China, Mozart l’Opera, has a younger viewership that consists of primarily 15-25-year-olds. Theatre attendees are usually 70% female, but the viewership for Notre Dame is well balanced. 42% of the audiences were first-time musical viewers.
Notre Dame first came to China in 2002. Zhang Ligang was one of the first who saw it. The box office wasn’t ideal at that time, but Zhang kept in touch with the production team, hoping to bring it back to China when the market condition is right. In 2012, Joy Way introduced the English version to the Chinese market. The audiences loved it and demanded the original French version to be brought to China as well. In recent years, the number of French musicals fans grew exponentially following the entry of many french musicals into Chinese theaters and videotapes of these musicals spreading widely on the internet. French musical stars, such as Mikelangelo Loconte, have also amassed a notable following. So Zhang introduced the French version of Notre Dame in 2019.
Zhang believes that the language barrier is never a problem. Subtitles can effectively bridge the language barrier, and body language usually communicates the most information, not words.
Unlike Broadway shows that are heavily focused on the music, London West End, Germany, and Austria musicals are more literature-oriented. Words appeal to Chinese audiences more than music. Broadway and West End have a stable viewership, which makes them unlikely to come to China. So French musicals would be likely to continue to be a big player in China’s musical market.
In 2020, Joy Way will bring in two more French musicals, Don Juan and Les Misérables.
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