Recap: Sound of Broadway: The Making of China’s Newest Broadway Musical, 7.15.21
Participants were treated to a sneak peek of China’s latest Broadway show Sound of the Silk Road on July 15, courtesy of China Institute and The Nederlander Organization. Featuring performances and a talk-back with the American and Chinese artists who created the show, you are invited to experience song selections and the creators who share highpoints, challenges, and the fun of producing a top-caliber cross-cultural show featuring Chinese magicians, puppets, and acrobats! The program includes introductory remarks by Zhou Bing, Chairman, Shaanxi Tourism Group.
Marc Acito (MA), is the writer of Sound of the Silk Road, which premieres in Xi’an in July 2021. In 2016, he was the first Broadway writer to create a new musical in China, The Secret.
Don Frantz (DF), Executive Producer of Sound of the Silk Road, is Executive Producer at Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, responsible for China operations, focusing on the creation of original musicals and touring and/or localizing Broadway musicals.
Gabriel Barre (GF), Director of Sound of the Silk Road, is an internationally acclaimed director who most recently directed the new musical Amazing Grace on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre.
Robert Nederlander, Jr. (RN), is a third generation member of the Nederlander family, one of the great dynasties of the American theatre. He is the founder and President of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, which manages theatres and presents Broadway productions in emerging international markets, as well as produces international productions for Broadway and elsewhere in the United States. He is also a trustee of China Institute.
Peter Kam (PK), a renowned Hong Kong composer, wrote the music for Sound of the Silk Road. He has contributed numerous works to the musical theater, including And Then There’s You, Born to be a Hero, Love you Teresa, Ah! Ku Liang, the hit Mama Love Me Once Again.
Full Recording of Sound of Broadway:
Quotes From the Program:
BN: We are fighting the challenges of distance, language, and doing business and producing theater in a different way. We share a common vision to bring a great story to China and visitors from around the world.
DE: What is the business model for a show like this?
BN: This is a commercial undertaking, with the show premiering in Xi’an, touring in China and touring around the world. That is commercial- that is the Broadway model. …it is in the plan to [bring it to the U.S.].
DE: This is the musical number ‘Hello’.
BN: This introduces the audiences to Joey, our protagonist, an American-born Chinese visiting Xi’an. He and his class are visiting a museum.
DE: Tell us: What is the show about?
MA: The basic story involves this young ABC [America-Born Chinese] named Joey, and when he gets in to this sphere, he hits his head and travels 2,000 years back to the Han Dynasty. We wanted to bring the audience on the journey. Once he gets there, he has to learn various lessons about the cross-cultural exchange of the Silk Road, the value of human interaction and working together…and it encounters a period of the Silk Road where an emperor died suddenly without an heir who would have closed down the Silk Road. That was a true story!
The key word is cooperation. I would never try to tell a Chinese story by myself. It is not an issue of cultural appropriation, it is an issue of cultural appreciation, I had a lot of Chinese partners…an incredible team of people…who helped me understand what it is we are trying to say. It is not about writing what you know, it is about knowing what you write. You can walk in someone else’s shoes without trying to take it away from them.
DE: Don, you worked on many shows for many years in China. How new is the idea of a Broadway show in China? Are they popular?
DF: In China, the audience is in their 20s and 30s as opposed to 50s-70s [here]. It is a young audience, so it has to appeal to a young audience. In terms of the history of the musical in China, …when I joined with Bob Nederlander to bring over 42nd Street in 2007, we were met with ‘What is musical?’ and trying to describe it. Over 100,000 people saw it across nine cities in China.
DE: What were some of the challenges?
DF: The challenge was a real collaboration between Americans and Chinese. There was constant translation…a musical needs trust, it was tough to bond with everyone over the Internet. Peter Kam spent 12 years in the U.S. and was a key figure in the sense of building that trust. This entire show was built in China, in other shows the sets or lights would be built in Japan…this was all done here. In America, we would give 26 weeks to build the set, and the ones here were built in 8 weeks- which is based on the fact that they know they can do it.
DE: Gabe, what was it like to work in China?
GB: It is a constant reminder that theater is a universal language. It is always rewarding to tell a story in another language and communicate emotionally through that story. That continues to be a joy, and to do it on this scale, adds to the challenge and excitement and reward. I feel like we have a really tight company!DE: Tell us about the ‘can-do’ energy in China- the ‘no problem’ answer. Tell us about the armillary sphere.
GB: This sphere is our equivalent of the chandelier from Phantom, the helicopter from Miss Saigon– the centerpiece in the show, especially in the beginning and end of the show. It was a key set piece to get right. We needed it to function…it has a hydraulic arm and spins at three different points of rotation. It creates a theatrical experience for the audience. It has to move on and off the stage…I was blown away at the scale of everything. I saw that they were using one winch to bring it on stage, then they had to use another set of four knives and winches to [move it]. They said the set piece was seven tons! I asked ‘how long does it take to strike’? and they said ‘we have it down to 12-13 minutes’ and I said ‘well you have 2-3 minutes,’ and they are getting it done!
DE: This is the next number ‘Gateway’
DE: Peter, tell us how you combined Broadway music and traditional Chinese style.PK: I think sound, any kind of sound, it automatically suggests a setting or culture. I think it is safe to say that if we hear a Chinese gong, it is safe to say we are not in Kansas any more. Melody is a central element that suggests a type of culture. Chord progressions and harmonies can suggest a different culture. The melodies are Chinese in flavor but set into harmonies that Western audiences can recognize. Combining those two, it is easy to get to a place where the Chinese melodies by themselves would not sound too foreign.
Writing a Broadway musical is never one man’s work- we have a great creative team. By telling the story about the emperor in just dialogue, someone suggested we do it in operatic style. But I didn’t know enough about this particular Chinese opera style (Qinqiang, or 秦腔 ) from Shaanxi province so we invited an expert in this style and I worked with him… The day when he came how to teach the movements and postures and singing the percussive part, he ended up teaching the actors how to do it.
DE: This final number is ‘Blood and Sweat,’ referring to Blood and Sweat horses. These were larger, faster horses that the Han Dynasty got on the Silk Road to defeat the smaller [horses of their Mongolian foes]. They were seen as majestic, god-like horses.
DE: What were some of the biggest surprises, or what you learned during the creation of this show?
GB: The biggest shock for me was walking in to the theater – it was mind-blowing. And to realize the scale of the show- it reminded me how many hundreds of people were working on the show and reminded me what a collaboration musical theater is in general.
MA: The generation of talent is very young here, and that goes for the management too. The majority of next-generation managers is female. And there is an extraordinary class of leaders coming up in the Chinese musical theater and it is thrilling to be a part of that shift.
At this point in the panel, we brought in Nia Nian, who plays Su Su in Sound of the Silk Road, to ask her about the experience of performing in Broadway musicals in China. You can watch this segment here.
NN: The American way of working is not the same as Chinese- in China, we are figuring things out as we do the creative work and we will need a lot of discussion. The director will think about how we will be and we will give ideas to the director…[in this musical] everything has already been decided by team and we just need to do it, I like this way of working. The most fun part is that we have a great cast, we are all very happy together. I am an interesting person, and I am meeting many interesting people!
As a final bonus piece of content, please enjoy this memorable story from Executive Producer Don Frantz on a uproarious dinner with Chinese officials and cast members featuring baijiu-motivated singing!