A Brave Enterprise
Updated: 2015-01-14
By Raymond Zhou (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Performers rehearse the Chinese version of the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The musical will be staged in Beijing's Century Theater for a month and then tour Shanghai in May. [Photos Provided to China Daily]

Success is fun both onstage and off, but for a young impresario of Broadway musicals the two worlds can go in tandem, reports Raymond Zhou.

If you browse through books at airport stores in China, or sample the hottest Web postings, you won't miss the biggest trend in the Middle Kingdom: tips on making it big by making tons of money.

Chinese even coined a word for it, "successology", a faux science which some are slavishly loyal to and others thumb their noses at. In China, the notion of success, especially as conventionally defined, has become both a shot in the arm and excess baggage.

One musical comedy has turned it into a collective mirror for boisterous laughter, and maybe, a pause for reflection.

A Brave Enterprise
It is a wonder that nobody thought of licensing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the Chinese stage - until now, that is. Yang Jiamin, born in 1987, wants success badly. But the success she has in mind is not necessarily measured in salaries or perks. She left the easy money from high finance for the unpredictable world of musicals because her dream is to present the best musical works to Chinese theatergoers.

Judging from audience reception, she is on her way to realize that. How to Succeed is her third production in less than three years. And after starting on Jan 9, it'll run in Beijing's Century Theater for a month and then tour Shanghai in May, a very auspicious start by Chinese standards.

The American original debuted on Broadway in 1961, and has since accumulated 1,417 performances, most recently starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Yang caught one of the 2012 shows and she instantly knew it would click with Chinese audiences. Now, she has planned a run of more than 100 performances with a 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) budget.

That's a big splash in China.

An impossible dream?
As a student of English language and literature at Peking University, Yang had two passions: Taking an interest in the appreciation of musicals, learning of classics like Show Boat and Oklahoma through arts courses, and starting her own business. She did not realize the two could be combined when she graduated in 2009.

She stepped into the roller coaster world of finance in the United States and Japan, but she was invariably lured to the Great White Way or its equivalent in Japan, where a company called Four Seasons produced localized versions of Western musicals.

With no professional expertise, Yang launched her musical production company Seven Ages Production in Beijing at the end of 2011.

Half a year later, Man of la Mancha opened in Beijing. Not a Chinese version though, but in its English original and directed by Joseph Graves, who was her professor sowing the seeds of the wonder of the musical in Yang. He had directed the show on Broadway. The repertory was a difficult choice for Yang because Chinese were not familiar with it, except the original novel.

It turned out that the tale of Don Quixote embodies the dream of many young Chinese, who are predominantly urban white-collar professionals holding onto their ideals and accidentally form the backbone of theater patrons. Their response was so positive that, even with a minimal marketing budget, word got out and a total of 60 shows, including a revival in 2013, were sold, recouping the initial investment of 2 million yuan.

"I wondered whether this musical illuminated my dream, or whether my dream facilitated its fruition in China. It is a subtle and magical dynamic. But I do believe the pursuit of life goals exhibited in this work is prodding me to go forward," says Yang.

Bigger budget
Yang's second production is a Chinese version of Avenue Q, with a much higher budget. The story contains risque elements that she feared might run into trouble. Surprisingly, everything went well when it opened in Shanghai in 2013, with a very healthy run of 50 shows and 95 percent audience turnout. It was revived a year later in Beijing, with a total of 141 shows for the two runs.

Avenue Q resonates with the Chinese audience for its humor and self-deprecation, especially for its portrayal of the underachiever, a demographic currently making tidal waves in Chinese pop culture. Yang's version incorporates loads of Chinese online memes, "drawing parallels between demographics in Brooklyn and Shanghai", as Gao Xiaosong, a popular talking head, puts it.

"Seven years earlier, I was watching a student production of the show, thinking of all the possibilities that youth might present," ruminates Yang. "Now I've produced a professional version. This is the stage of life one has to reconcile with oneself. We cannot go back to the college campus, but have to come to terms with reality. Avenue Q chronicles that moment in life with truthfulness and a light touch. It shows you are not alone."

Youthful enthusiasm is contagious. Yang's team comes from young people in other lines of work who share her dream. Some are media professionals she had earlier contacted for publicity.

"My father is a civil servant and my mother an entrepreneur. I can detect their differences. She is like someone of my generation: She encourages me to do what I want to do and she gives me a lot of freedom," adds Yang. That includes the freedom to venture into a part of showbiz that is far from mature yet.

"When Jack Ma first launched Alibaba, people suspected he was a crook. We're in a much better position now." Her company had got another capital injection of 30 million yuan before the opening of How to Succeed, she announces. "We have successful productions to show the world."
 

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