The Shanghai Culture Square (SCS) on Fuxing Zhong Lu has been called ‘a UFO’, ‘a giant toilet seat’ and ‘an eyesore’ – but it might also be the making of musical theatre in China. The airy 65,000sqm space, which cost 1.1 billion RMB to build and can hold 2,011 people, is committed to mostly showing musicals. In other words, expect Broadway touring companies, translated versions of West End favourites and, most importantly, musicals born in China.
China has only made minor forays into the genre, a ‘lower’ art form which can be a blissful marriage of art and money but also, if done wrong, ruinously expensive and nationally humiliating. So it’s a big deal that the Shanghai Grand Theatre Arts Centre, which also runs the Shanghai Concert Hall and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (among others), has decided to invest so much in musicals. SCS PR director Ling Ling says: ‘We’re first and foremost a musical theatre centre.’
As for the space itself, it’s impressive. The exterior, originally designed by architect Richard Blinder (who sadly died in 2006) to represent ‘the phoenix spreading is wings’, is less spectacular than an interior that’s airy to the point of bouyancy. The lobby is lit only by sunshine; in the evenings, artist Ding Shaoguang’s massive blue-green rainforest painting will glow with LED light, echoing the stained-glass windows of European cathedrals. Better still, the building plunges 26 metres underground, providing natural heating and air conditioning while cutting both its costs and carbon footprint.
But perhaps the key aspect of a musical theatre is its technology. While concert halls focus on acoustics, musical theatre venues need multi-functional stages – this one boasts a revolving platform; rain/flood technology that will wash actors in half a metre of water; and the country’s only ice-making machine, should anyone want to lace up skates.
Upon completion, the perimeter fences will tumble down, leaving green spaces, making the theatre part of the community. While Beijing’s ‘Theatre District’ is in the heart of the government centre where taxis can’t even stop, SCS will be ringed with bars, coffee shops, restaurants and trendy boutiques.
And the fledgling industry needs all the help it can get. Originally, SCS was to show nothing but musicals; now the programming directive is at 50 per cent, with the remainder being outdoor jazz festivals and popular concerts (think Diana Krall). The Dutch version of Cameron Mackintosh and Disney’s musical Mary Poppins were slated for SCS’s August opening, but touring and language issues rendered it prohibitively expensive.
Instead, SCS debuts with an ‘Ultimate Broadway’ gala, featuring (as yet unnamed) stars from East and West. No matter, this is just the beginning. ‘In the past eight years [China] has introduced a number of musicals, but we still have a long way to go,’ says programming manager Richard Fei. ‘We lack creative people and content. But Broadway has had 100 years, we’ve had less than ten.’ Strap in, this should be fun to watch.