“Seven years ago we sold ten thousand tickets in a year, now we can sell ten thousand tickets in an hour.” Yang Jiamin, the CEO of Sevenages, posted on her Wechat account on the day “The Lion King” tickets went on sale.
On November 13th, the Broadway musical The Lion King, overseen by Disney Theatre Group and co-produced by Australian company Michael Cassel Group, Beijing Poly Theater Management Co., Ltd. and Sevenages, held a press conference in Beijing announcing new international tour stops in Wuhan and Beijing in 2020.
The Lion King is a long-running Broadway show familiar to the Chinese audience. Twenty-two years ago, The Lion King was first performed at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. In 2006, the original The Lion King put on 106 shows at Shanghai Grand Theatre. In 2016, the Chinese version of The Lion King premiered at the Shanghai Walt Disney Grand Theatre. The tour would stop in China for more than six months, with more than 200 shows. This is also the largest and longest stop in this international tour, setting the record for the highest number of shows in any international musical tours in China.
Ten years ago, Yang Jiamin watched the musical The Lion King for the first time on Broadway. She still remembers the five-year-old girl sitting next to her, eyes flashed with curiosity and excitement about what was happening on the stage. Yang started wondering, why is The Lion King the highest-grossing musical in the world? After watching various editions of the musical all over the world and researching related information, she found two main reasons:
First, the theme of The Lion King has a universal appeal that transcends time and demographics. It is a story about growth, a journey of a child entering a complex world, from trying to avoid responsibilities to facing obstacles head-on. This process everyone must go through.
Second, the musical adaptation is sufficiently different from the movie. Yang said that many adaptations of classics repeat itself but The Lion King musical was able to diverge from the great success of the movie itself and create a new work of art with the imagination of musical theater.
Yang also wondered: why doesn’t China have artworks that influence generations of people all over the world like The Lion King? She quoted Jack Ma for a plausible cause: “Cultural and artistic education should be about the beauty of life, but our children are still educated as if they depend on it for survival.”
In 2012, Yang Jiamin returned to China and founded Sevenages. She believes that competitions of the next generation will be more about imaginations, creativity, as well as the ability to appreciate and create beauty. She hopes that through her and her team’s efforts, she could bring quality cultural content from all over the world to audiences in China, and also bring art education to children in China, which would affect the aesthetic and spiritual life of generations to come.
In the past few years, everyone has witnessed tremendous changes in the Chinese musical theatre market. Yang Jiamin also hopes that with the arrival of The Lion King musical in the Chinese market, she can plant a seed in the mind of the children in the audience and maybe some of them, in the near future, would write stories as influential as The Lion King.
The following is a detailed script of the Q&A session we had with the producer of the musical, Michael Cassel, and the founder and CEO of Sevenages, Yang Jiamin:
Q: Is there any differences between the tour version and the Broadway version?
Michael Cassel: It is exactly the same. I’m very proud we made it come true.
Q: What are some of the most impressive moments and stories in the international tour already underway?
Michael Cassel: Everyday was incredible but one memory that stuck out was the first day when we brought all the actors together. We worked very hard to bring all 51 actors from 19 countries and more than 100 stage technicians together. It was a very special day.
Q: How long did the whole process of getting The Lion King into China take?
Yang Jiamin: I received an email in March or April this year from the Michael Cassel Group saying that The Lion King international tour intends to come to China. Then he called again to tell us that Disney headquarters and British drama producer Cameron Mackintosh both recommended Sevenages as the Chinese partner.
We also want to bring this musical to China. I think it would change the history of Chinese musical drama. So we quickly reached a consensus. For the next four, five months, we sorted out the details. It was very complicated, especially the terms of the contracts with Beijing Poly Theater and Wuhan Qintai Grand Theater. These two theaters are two of the best theaters in China, but they still didn’t have the capacity for The Lion King and needed a lot of renovations in order to undertake this repertoire, which requires tens of millions in investment.
After negotiations, the contracts were signed in August and September, so the communication took around six months. Of course, we have done a lot of preparation before March and we built up our reputations bringing a number of international stage plays and musicals into China. That’s why Disney and Mr. Mackintosh recommended us in the first place.
Q: How did you pick Beijing and Wuhan for the tour?
Yang Jiamin: The English version of the play went to Shanghai more than ten years ago, and the Chinese version in Disney was also in Shanghai. So although it has been to China many times, it has never been out of Shanghai. However, we can see the musical theatre market in Beijing and many other central regions is growing rapidly. The musical theatre market in Beijing is as big as that in Shanghai now. Wuhan is also a city that we see a lot of potential in. In the past few years, Wuhan’s ticket sales have been consistently in the top three in second-tier cities. And the sales of The Lion King proves it. The pre-sale revenue in Wuhan is almost the same as in Beijing.
Q: Wuhan has a large college student population. Do you have a special marketing strategy for this demographic?
Yang Jiamin: We are working with Wuhan Poly Theatre to promote on campus. We are also collaborating with the Wuhan government to advertise in city-wide activities like “Cherry Blossom Season”.
Q: How is the pre-sale? Who are the buyers?
Yang Jiamin: From what we can tell now, the buyers are mostly regular musical enthusiasts and there are many middle-class families.
Q: Is the musical going to be marketed as a kid’s show?
Yang Jiamin: No. This is not a kid’s show. It’s a kid-friendly show, but it really is a classic that’s great with every age group.
Q: Sevenages have mostly worked on importing musicals and translating them into Chinese. But recently Sevenages brought the original English version of Matilda and The Lion King in to China. Is there any change in the company’s strategy?
Yang Jiamin: Many people have been asking me this question, but no, we never changed our strategy. Bringing the originals into China is a way to prepare the audiences for the Chinese version. It helps that the audiences hear the originals so they are more receptive to the brand and the sound which makes them more likely to buy tickets to see the Chinese version.
After Matilda finishes all the dates of this tour, we are going to start working for the Chinese version next year.
We also have to prepare our talents for the Chinese versions. And the most effective way to train talents is to let them watch, learn and participate in the production process of the original. For example, Matilda has a mostly international crew, but every department has a Chinese member from Sevenages. As a result, they would have the confidence and knowledge to operate the show. It prepares our staff to run production independently and efficiently, and eventually create original Chinese musicals.
Q: Is The Lion King going to have a Chinese version?
Yang Jiamin: Very likely. We share the same vision with Disney about this. We all believe a tour is good for brand building but in order to stay in China and profit long term, we need a Chinese version.
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