A week ago, Signature Theatre's artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, flew to South Korea to stage the company's hit revival of the musical "Titanic" in Seoul, with a Korean cast. And now, the Arlington-based, Tony-honored group is taking yet another step toward Asia as it dives into an ambitious project to help develop an original Chinese musical — in both Mandarin and English.
The hope for “Road to Heaven: The Jonathan Lee Musical,” says lead producer Ivy Zhong, founder and chief executive of China Broadway Entertainment, is to create the first piece of Chinese musical theater with global reach, starting with a Mandarin version in China and then a production in English in the United States and elsewhere. To that end, her company has recruited a group of American theater professionals, including Schaeffer as director, Richard Maltby Jr. (“Miss Saigon”) as lyricist and book writer John Dempsey (“The Witches of Eastwick”).
Their mission is to turn the songbook of Taiwanese-born singer-songwriter Jonathan Lee — known to fans in China and Taiwan as Li Zongsheng — into a jukebox musical, adapted from a novel by Li Xiuwen. That process began this week, with rehearsals in New York that are to lead to a full reading of the musical on Dec. 12 in Signature’s Shirlington complex, with production costs paid by Zhong’s company.
Where things go from there is anybody’s guess. The idea is for a show that strings Lee’s existing melodies together, as in Twyla Tharp’s handling of Billy Joel’s songs for “Movin’ Out.” Zhong says the plan calls for a follow-up four-week workshop next February in China. If the enterprise proves artistically cohesive, and eventually were to demonstrate crossover appeal, it would be a landmark in the evolution of the fledgling musical-theater industry in China. Heretofore that market has consisted largely of tours of American musicals such as “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys,” “Sister Act” and “Ghost.”
Communicating by email from Seoul, where he and Signature’s associate artistic director, Matthew Gardiner, are readying “Titanic” for performances beginning Nov. 10, Schaeffer said China Broadway Entertainment approached Signature “as they were looking for a U.S. partner whose specialty was musicals. We’ve been looking for ways to expand the Signature footprint, and this was the perfect opportunity.”
Schaeffer and Signature have reached out to Asia before. The artistic director has staged other musicals in Seoul, including a revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd.” And four summers ago, Signature hosted a developmental production of a musical, “Spin,” based on a popular 2008 Korean movie, “Speedy Scandal.” The piece, performed in English, revealed some of the familiar problems in adapting movies of any kind for the musical theater: The storytelling was hackneyed and the pop songs were mostly undistinguished. The project fizzled.
Zhong, who talked about “Road to Heaven” in a booth in a Times Square deli immediately after landing in New York from Beijing, is an entertainment executive with roots in film and TV who became fascinated by musical theater. She has produced one other original musical in China, “The Secret,” directed by Broadway veteran John Rando, using the music of another China pop singer. The show has done well, she says, in short stays in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities. She also was a Broadway investor in the recent musical adaptation of “An American in Paris,” directed by ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
She and her American executive producer, Don Frantz, say they think that Lee’s music holds the promise of wider popularity for a form that is still relatively obscure in the world’s most populous nation. As Frantz explained, “Road to Heaven” — the story of the love between a young woman and a man with a terminal illness — is musical drama, a form with more familiarity to Chinese audiences than musical comedy. Still, the musical-theatergoing habit in China is in its infancy.
“In the Chinese mind, the musical is a niche, high-level product,” Zhong said. “First, we want them to know it is not a niche.”
At the moment, she, Frantz and managing director Coco LV are overseeing the first baby steps on the road to “Heaven.” Seven Mandarin-speaking actors are putting together a few of Lee’s songs for the singer himself, who is on a short U.S. tour, with stops in Las Vegas, Chicago and Connecticut. Dempsey is adding some dialogue, so Lee can hear what they might sound like as part of a story onstage. At the prospect of showing the progress to the Chinese star — whom Frantz described as the Billy Joel of China — Zhong laughed nervously.
“My dream is to make this musical travel around the world,” she said. “It’s not that easy. Everyone knows that.”