Who’s the latest behind-the-scenes investor on Broadway? China.
Three of the hottest musicals on Broadway have Chinese backers as China starts expanding live theatrical entertainment at home and looks to New York for expertise.
China Media Capital, a state-backed private-equity fund, has invested in the production company behind Tony-nominated “Hand to God” and “Something Rotten!” Beijing-based China Broadway Entertainment is a backer of “An American in Paris”.
“This is the first season that Chinese companies are investing on Broadway,” said Simone Genatt, chairman of Broadway Asia, a New York-based production and licensing entertainment company primarily focused on Asia. “They’ve been doing Broadway musicals in mainland China for the last decade, but this is the first time China is here in New York.”
The New York investments are part of a broader push to expand musical theater inside China. Big Broadway shows such as “Cats” and “The Sound of Music” have been touring China for years. In a next step,“Cats” and “Mamma Mia” have been translated into Chinese. Over the past several years, the government has built over 25 new theaters for live musical productions, each with 1,200 to 1,800-seat capacities throughout the country.
Chinese companies say they’re hoping to leverage their stakes in Broadway shows to gain expertise in U.S. productions, bring shows to China and eventually develop more original Chinese-produced musicals.
Shanghai-based CMC last year invested in Kevin McCollum’s Broadway Global Ventures, which produced “Hand to God” and “Something Rotten!” Mr. McCollum, a veteran producer whose credits include “Avenue Q” and “Rent,” declined to reveal the size of the investment but said CMC can help his company expand its productions to China, which he said is ripe for consuming and creating theater.
Eventually, Mr. McCollum says he hopes to create original musical theater using artists and writers from the U.S. and China.
“Kevin is very good at making original shows, an ability that we deem as vital,” said Clark Xu, managing director of CMC. “Because at the end of the day, we want to make our own original shows.”
CMC’s investment is designed to benefit its portfolio companies, including Seven Ages Production, a musical-production company based in Beijing that adapted Mr. McCollum’s “Avenue Q” into a Chinese version that began touring nationwide in 2014.
CMC is also an investor in Shanghai’s new Dream Center, a large entertainment complex with five theaters, including one dedicated to musicals, that is slated to open as early as 2017. The theater will be able to draw on both Mr. McCollum’s productions as well as its own original productions in the future, Mr. Xu said. CMC is also learning ticketing and theater management from Mr. McCollum’s team, and making sure it is able to hold world-class musicals in the future.
Until now, Chinese investors have preferred classic musicals with wholesome stories. “Something Rotten!”—a somewhat ribald love letter to musical theater and Shakespeare—and the provocative “Hand to God” are more audacious offerings, but have drawn no objections from CMC. “The shows were born from the western soil and the content caters to the local audiences,” said Mr. Xu. “We don’t interfere with the show’s creation and we respect the decisions by the creation team.”
Mr. McCullom says the edgy “Avenue Q” wasn’t changed for China, but in general, tweaking a show to make it work in a new venue is common. “You have to have partners in the local market to have success in that market,” he said.
“An American in Paris” is the first investment by China Broadway Entertainment, a Beijing-based live-entertainment production company. The company, created last year, was founded by Broadway Asia and two Chinese producers: Ivy Zhong and Sean Hsu. CBE invested “several hundred thousand dollars” in the musical.
“An American in Paris” is expected to go to China as early as 2018, first as a tour throughout Asia, then as a local-language version, Ms. Genatt said. CBE is also planning an immersive production of “Peter Pan” to tour some cities in China.
Don Frantz says he started getting calls from Chinese investors as soon as the Tony nominations were announced in April this year. Mr. Frantz is actively involved with local producers in theatrical production in China, including a Mandarin-production of “Into the Woods.”
“Chinese investors are passionate about the Broadway world,” Mr. Frantz said.