SHEN XIAOCEN still remembers the moment when she received an audition notice for the Chinese version of “Mamma Mia!,” nine years ago in London.
Shen, a star singer active in China during the 1980s, has now lived overseas for many years. “Starring in ‘Mamma Mia!’ has been the ultimate dream of my singing career,” she said. “I’ve longed for an opportunity to sing in this globally popular production, using my native language back in my motherland.”
“Mamma Mia!,” a jukebox musical that premiered in London in 1999, is based on 22 songs of iconic Swedish pop group ABBA. It tells the story of kinship, friendship, and romance.
As of 2018, it had been performed in 440 cities in 50 countries, attracting an audience of over 60 million people. The Chinese version of “Mamma Mia!” made its debut in Shanghai in July 2011, constituting its 14th language version, and has been performed 400 times.
Shen has gone on to play the role of Tanya since 2011 and had the chance to witness the rapid development of China’s musical drama industry. “Some uncredited roles in the first season are now able to play leading roles.”
Zhou Xiaowei, who was studying directing at Shanghai Theater Academy when the first season of the Mmandarin version of “Mamma Mia!” was holding auditions, did not pass her final round audition for “Sophie.” But that did not mark the end of her ties to “Mamma Mia!” as she now plays Lisa in the fourth season.
Zhou, who has been able to switch her role from the audience to the stage, said many talented people have been trained by the Chinese version.
Tian Yuan, who helped introduce the original version of “Mamma Mia!” to be staged in China in 2007, moved on to become the producer of its Chinese version.
Looking back, Tian said when she saw the original version in London, it immediately occurred to her that she wanted to “do something” for China’s musical dramas.
“China’s musical drama market is still in its initial stage. But there’s huge growth potential in the future as audiences increasingly become aware of and favor this art form,” said Tian.
However, Tian said the scale of people in favor of musical dramas is still small, and the speed of growth doesn’t match the number of new productions. “Therefore the market faces a tremendous challenge and needs to be gradually built up.”
China’s musical drama industry needs to begin with learning, which is done through in-depth exchanges with international teams, Tian said.
Only through practical work, strict standards, and high-quality productions can China’s musical drama industry take root and achieve continuous development.
Qingfei, who played Sky in the production, spent 14 years with Japan’s Shiki Theater Company. “Because Chinese audiences do not yet know enough about musical dramas, it’s important that their first musical drama experience is of high quality.”
China is not short of good screenplays or stories, but it lacks professional talents for musical dramas, Qingfei said. Having returned to China, he has found that there are a rapidly increasing number of students in the field and he believes domestic musical dramas can enter a positive cycle.
“I am very proud of the Chinese version,” Mark Whittemore, international manager of “Mamma Mia!,” told Xinhua. “It has very high standards and is as good as any other version around the world.”