Entertainment financier Ivy Zhong wants to bring a jukebox show by China’s biggest pop star to Broadway. Zhong splits her time between Beverly Hills and Beijing and is best known for orchestrating Galloping Horse Group’s majority acquisition of FX powerhouse Digital Domain for $30.2 million in 2012. Her newest venture, China Broadway Entertainment, took its first big plunge into American-style Broadway entertainment with a stake in An American In Paris, which won four Tony Awards in 2015 and is still touring. Lately, however, Zhong has been signing a boatload of Broadway talent to create shows for an increasingly hungry Asian market, with Broadway as the endgame.
That’s her plan, anyway, with a nascent catalogue show called Road To Heaven: The Jonathan Lee Musical. Lee is a hugely successful pop music composer and singer – think Billy Joel by way of Josh Groban – whose catalogue is being fashioned by Richard Maltby Jr. (Miss Saigon, Ain’t Misbehavin’) and John Dempsey (The Pirate Queen) into a romantic pop-stravaganza based on Li Xiuwen’s novel about a man, a woman and a deathly illness, staged by Eric Schaefer (Gigi, Million Dollar Quartet).
If Broadway creatives discovered a lucrative second market in Las Vegas in the 1990s, Asia now seems to be the happening place for talent. In addition to the team for Road to Heaven, Zhong’s roster includes director John Rando (Urinetown, On The Town); producer Anne Hamburger; and set designers Beowulf Boritt and David Gallo. Intriguingly, CBE produced Neverland, a full-on immersive Peter Pan musical staged by Randy Weiner (Sleep No More, The Donkey Show, whose wife, Diane Paulus, staged the Harvey Weinstein-produced musical Finding Neverland (they must really believe in fairies), which is out on tour.
The Road To Heaven team is gathering this week in New York in preparation for a December 12 reading at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, where Schaeffer is artistic director. Beyond that, Zhong hopes to open the show next year in Shanghai, with a Broadway production to follow. That’s all in the planning, but unlike many a Broadway dream, this one comes with substantial backing. Zhong, whose background is in TV financing and film (she holds master’s degrees in marketing and risk management), was named China’s most influential businesswoman before hitting 40. She lists 19 feature films and 22 television programs on her CV. Her U.S. lieutenant is executive producer Don Frantz, a general manager and veteran of Disney stage ventures including The Lion King and Beauty & The Beast.
Meeting this afternoon with Zhong, her managing director Coco LV and Frantz at a Midtown patisserie, the talk centered on the youthful China market, where tickets to shows cost around $60 and productions are built to move; long runs are strictly Broadway. “Immersive” was the most-called upon adjective, as in “The Road To Heaven will be an immersive show,” according to Zhong, who showed me clips from Neverland and The Secret, another jukebox show, that one staged by Rando and was blur of Asia-pop music, high-tech effects and non-stop movement.
Whether Road to Heaven will realize Zhong’s dream of a Chinese show that eventually will translate (literally from Mandarin to English) for a Broadway audience, is a gamble she’s comfortable taking. After all, she’s greenlit $150-million films. One-tenth of that, given the return on a hit like The Lion King, is not such a bad bet.