What's new, pussycat?

By Alice Xin Liu (That's Beijing)
Updated: 2008-01-07 11:37

Move over Hello Kitty – Cats is coming to town. The ever-popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical arrives this month for its second Beijing run – this time courtesy of Webber's own production company (The Really Useful Group) – with an Australian touring cast and plenty of promotional propaganda (just how Chinese is Mr. Mistoffelees, exactly?).

Inspired by a T. S. Eliot book about kitties, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Lloyd Webber wove together a fantastical musical tale, and his experiment turned out to be an unexpected success, breaking records around the world. In London's West End, for example, the musical had a record run from 1981 through to 2002, playing 8,949 times. Its run on New York's Broadway saw the cats meow together a record 7,485 times. Driven by the popularity of several songs, including Mr. Mistoffelees and Memory, Cats was considered by some as a production that revolutionized the way musicals were perceived.

While the Beijing run will be nowhere near the records set by London and New York – there will be just over a full week of dates this time around – Beijing's status as a burgeoning modern metropolis means that it has the potential to put on and welcome a show as grand as Cats. In fact, Cats is merely another musical in a line of high-profile Broadway-themed stage events over the past year; no sooner did advertisements for November's 42nd Street start coming down around town, for example, than posters for Cats started going up. And 42nd Street was preceded by other Broadway fare such as Mamma Mia! and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.

The trend shows how local audiences are beginning to crave – and are able to afford – these big-budget musicals. Lloyd Webber himself came to scope out the opportunities last November, along with his trusty producer, longtime collaborator, and father of many West End hits, Cameron Mackintosh. Though they've been highly secretive about their activities, there are signs of an exciting Beijing stage takeover in 2008. Confirmed thus far is news that Mackintosh will generate a completely Chinese version of Les Miserables, scheduled for a November 2008 debut at the National Grand Theater. Lloyd Webber also announced that he wishes to bring his acclaimed repertoire to Beijing. Following Cats, Evita is rumored to be in the pipeline, as is Mackintosh's My Fair Lady.

Cats arrived for the first time in 2004 and was performed at the Great Hall of the People. The current production will be hosted at the Beijing Exhibition Theater, and Gao Qi, the director of the co-producing China Arts & Entertainment Group, believes it will be better this time around. For one, the acoustics in the theater are much better than the cavernous Great Hall, and this production will incorporate local aspects into the performance – even going as far as to use Chinese street litter for props.

The PR blitz could be seen as an attempt to ingratiate a very Western musical (despite what the promoters might tell you) with a Chinese audience, raising doubts about whether Cats can draw a large audience here. Of course, Gao Qi pooh-poohs any such doubts, referring to the growing popularity of musicals: "Over the years we have brought more and more musicals to China. Gradually musical lovers have grown [in number], and the musicals of 2007 have brought somewhat of a small climax. I think this small climax will continue for some time." She also hints that China Arts & Entertainment are in negotiations for more Lloyd Webber musicals. As such, China's musical market seems to be focused on "classics" like Cats. Fostering smaller productions will be the next battle.

Venue: Beijing Exhibition Theater 
Date: Jan 19-27
Ticket: RMB 480-1,680
Tel: 010-6835-4455