Say Musicals Aren’t Serious Drama, But They Are Seriously Hard To Emulate

Telling a story in an interesting and compelling way ain’t easy. Sure, we all know that, but an article about efforts Chinese creatives are making to tell their own stories through musical theater reminds us it isn’t as easy as it looks.

Broadway and West End musicals are pretty popular in China, but Chinese artists understandably have a desire to see works with domestic origins onstage as well. While China has opera traditions that were considered to have reached their maturity 800 years ago, the basic format and practices don’t easily translate over to musical theater conventions.

“People prefer to see foreign musicals because they’re more mature productions,” said Jin. “Our original musicals still have many issues — with the market, theaters, production, rehearsals.”

One particular issue, believes Qiu, is that Chinese musicals suffer from clumsy scripts. Many playwrights consider musicals to be simply a matter of “adding a storyline to a gala” or “a drama plus songs,” he said.

“Our creators and producers are lagging behind actors and musicians,” said Jin. “They need to slowly work out the laws of musicals.” Jin believes that most local productions are hastily thrown together without a clear development process; he previously complained… that domestic productions focus too much on visuals and too little on the music and script.

In contrast, Zhou pointed out, successful international productions often center on strong narratives and timely themes. “Americans are good at telling stories; they’re good at finding problems that exist in the here and now,” she said. ….“Only when we find things that we want to express will we truly find the soul of original musicals,” Zhou said of Chinese productions, which she believes rarely address contemporary societal issues. “Only then will musicals really be good and will people really want to see them.”

The lesson I take from the perspective of outsiders trying to adopt the form is that we often take for granted just how much development, both rapid innovation and quiet increments, has been involved in familiar modes of artistic expression.

Last year I saw an Ira Gershwin musical from the 1930s that sounded good on paper but left me wondering how it had won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The experience gave me a greater appreciation as to why shows like Oklahoma! were considered groundbreaking for unifying story, song and dance. So much of what I expect from musical theater is a result of the changes Oklahoma! brought to the stage. No one could imagine hewing to the previous conventions after that.

Given that the performing arts in the West are faced with a similar challenge of finding a new narrative with which their audiences can relate, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Chinese creatives might help provide the template for doing so.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Say Musicals Aren’t Serious Drama, But They Are Seriously Hard To Emulate”

  1. It bothers me that to many Americans musicals are all the theater they are aware of. I don’t personally care for most musicals, but something like 80% of the available theater training for kids and college students locally is just for musicals.

    I don’t mind the existence of art forms that don’t interest me—until the dominance of them pushes out the art forms that do interest me.

    • There are other types of theater?

      I was reading another blog today that noted there are so many productions trying to get into Broadway theaters and so few theaters available that it reinforces doing a certain type of show. With demand being so high, you need a show that can cover the expenses that go along with that.

      Without the cachet of the Broadway or West End name, the show doesn’t become famous enough to garner national attention.

      So yeah, basically the way things are now, people equate theater with musicals because only musicals appear in a venue that enters the national consciousness.


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