About a month ago, Ro sent me an excited email—a tour of the stage version of High School Musical would soon be sweeping through five cities in China, including my very own Chongqing. The information I could find in English was sketchy, but I learned it was playing for a couple weeks at the huge, state-of-the-art opera house in Jiang Bei, across the river to the north from the downtown area. Presumably, thanks to the promotional photos that featured non-Chinese actors, this would be in English. Obviously I had to go.
Of course, I asked around a little to my PC friends but no one was too psyched either about (a) going or (b) spending the kind of money on tickets that might be required. So instead I suggested it to the host family I lived with when I first came to CQ [this, btw, is the abbreviation for Chongqing that I use frequently. Keep up!], who have a 9-year-old daughter who is enthusiastic about such things as Hannah Montana, if not yet exposed to HSM, and whom they fervently encourage in English pursuits. Said host, LL, called the theater for details, and found out the cheapest two tiers of tickets were “sold out”—so we made the plan to arrive at the theater for the Saturday matinee and try to get cheaper tickets day-of. I didn’t have huge confidence in this plan, but whatever.
So on Saturday, off we went—me, LL, 9-y-o daughter M, non-English-speaking husband of LL, there just to drive and not to see the show and be generally silent (this is almost always the case), and friend of LL and her 13-y-o daughter, K, both of whom lived in New Zealand for a year and speak excellent English. (You may recall that LL and M also lived in Vancouver for a year, so same situation). We arrived at 2 for the 2:30 show. “Stay in the car,” LL and Friend instructed. “If the vendors see you, they may charge a higher price.” Probably true. LL and Friend first approached the official ticket booth, who quoted the cheapest ticket price available as 280 yuan, or about $40, which is quite steep given my monthly “salary.” They then skulked around to various scalpers (a new word I taught them), but nothing was working out acceptably. Then back to the ticket booth, 10 minutes before the performance was to start. “We’ve had a cancellation…” was now the story, and we were sold five tickets in the top balcony for 180 yuan. Pleased, we hurried into the theater.
Those of you who saw High School Musical in San Francisco with me in 2008 can best imagine what the production was like. I don’t remember all the features of that production, but I did notice a couple small differences–like no slow-motion glowing basketball on a stick sailing towards the basket in the final game scene. However, it was essentially the same—except for the Chinese supertitles on a screen above the stage, like you’d have at an opera. There were no Chinese people in the cast, or anything of the sort.
The show was fun, although I’d say the cast wasn’t quiiiite up to the quality of what I expect to see as a national touring production at a major theater in the US. I know it’s a kids’ show, and that it’s catering to a Chinese audience, perhaps, but a couple characters, especially Sharpay, were exaggerated to the point of not funny. But still, I got a little teary when the first song started, thinking about all my nostalgic, fuzzy associations with HSM at home. But what was perhaps even more interesting than the show itself was the audience reaction.
Because, mainly, this theater audience didn’t really know how to be a theater audience. The huge auditorium wasn’t full, and I expect steep ticket prices, and what seems to me to have been mediocre publicity, may have contributed to that. But it was filled with wealthy Han Chinese, and Han Chinese only. I was the only white person there besides the performers, and nor were there any Chinese minorities about (since they tend to be poorer).
But it felt like everyone was play-acting at being a theatrical audience. At a Chinese performance, the audience chatter throughout, and stop to clap and interrupt whenever something exciting happens. Here, the audience mostly sat in studied silence, however, forgetting themselves only here and there when they would burst in to applaud when a ballad, like “What I’ve Been Looking For (Troy and Gabriella)” began, then remembering to clam up again. (Chinese people have a serious love for ballads. At any karaoke session, it’s the majority of what you hear). There would be tepid applause after musical numbers, but it was like people weren’t totally sure whether applause would be appropriate, so they didn’t. This was even worse for the curtain call—first, the last number ended, and there was fairly good applause. Then, some dancers came back on, danced, and bowed, to a little applause. But as each subsequent performer came back on for his bow, the applause tempered down to nothing. It rose again for the final all-cast bow, and then immediately ceased when the performers went offstage. The “encore” bow was a joke, since encoring a bow when no one had been applauding in the first place seems a little…forced.
There was other stuff. When the lights came up for intermission, there was confusion and silence, even from my companions, until an announcement in Chinese was made about this being only a 20 minute break. There was a child of about 4, who had come up to me in wonderment outside the theater and then who happened to be sitting near us. But by sitting near us, I mean, walking around the whole balcony throughout the show, without any intervention from his ipad-wielding mother. During one part near the end, when some dancers came up into the audience to “watch” the performance of “Breaking Free,” the child ran right over to the cheerleader girl and was hanging onto her while she was trying to lead the step-clap. Still no parental intervention. They probably thought it was cute.
Oh, and a fistfight broke out in the orchestra part of the audience at the very end of intermission. The parties involved were helped out by ushers, but only after a couple minutes, and only after the second act was already beginning. It was bizarre.
I think the production definitely could have made a few changes to make it more audience-appropriate. There were a few concessions—a couple of heavy-handed references to Chongqing, and occasional “ni hao” or “xie xie.” More amusingly, a Chad line—“ Do you think LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal ever auditioned for their school musical?” was changed to mention Yao Ming. A couple of the character exited to go get “dim sum” (not even something you can get in Chongqing). And in the silly, extended drama club scene that’s only in the stage show, where the characters are doing an acting exercise impersonating animals, one dancer was instructed to “*be* the panda!” But despite the Chinese subtitles, there were many, many lines and references that would have gone over all the audience members heads. Theater-related puns, references to pop culture, etc. A couple small things may have been changed—like, sadly, “Everyone loves a good jazz square, it’s an American classic!”—but what they did change seemed random and so many jokes were surely missed. Plus, some staging conventions, like occasionally having cast members go into the audience, were totally inappropriate—it would completely draw focus from whatever was on stage, even after the actor had left the audience, with everyone standing up and chattering and craning to see what was happening.
After the show, in true Chinese style, four of the principal actors were ushered out to the lobby to sign autographs—in character with character names, ala Disneyland or something. The crowd mobbed them, with everyone holding up their camera phones to try to get a shot. This went on for 15 minutes, with M and K trying to get their tickets signed. By 20 minutes after the show ended, we were walking around the side of the theater to the parking area past…the entire cast, now in street clothes but still in makeup, smoking cigarettes just outside the theater, mostly being ignored by the other former audience members exiting.
It seemed worthwhile to approach them—there’s some solidarity in being a foreigner here, definitely. I talked to a few of them for a couple minutes—yes, this was a China-only tour, something like two months long, and most of them didn’t seem to be American, as there was a mix of European and African-sounding accents. “How has it been going?” I asked vaguely. “Uh, OK…It’s really…different. The food, and the people, and stuff,” answered an African dancer girl. “Yeah, I’ve been here for a few months, and am going to be here for two years more, it’s an adjustment,” I replied. Suddenly several more cast members were paying attention to me. “Really?” the girl who played Martha (!) asked, looking shocked. “How are you…coping?” Seems to me they’ve probably been having a really tough time here. That’s a long time to spend in China, traveling from place to place (never fun), probably with little to no cultural training or knowledge, and facing these weird audiences and whatnot.
We headed back to Beibei and to dinner at a banquet-style restaurant, where a little roughhousing on the girls’ part led to an “expensive” vase being broken at the end of the meal, leading to a heated dispute over fault, leading to police intervention, and leading, eventually, to my hosts paying a pretty small fee. Just another day in China.