One company in the vanguard of this effort is Harmonia, a five-year-old specialist in connecting Chinese audiences with Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. It recently announced a production of King Kong , which is slated to open in Shanghai in 2021. Its roster of 2019-20 projects, all in English with a Western cast, include Off-Broadway’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which opened June 27 in Shanghai, as well as the Titanic and Madagascar musicals and a Northern Ireland production of Shh! We Have a Plan.
In 2020-21, Harmonia’s list of presenting projects in China and Asia (all English language with foreign casts) includes Jersey Boys, The Addams Family, The Color Purple and Beautiful.
Kenneth Dingledine, president of Harmonia, recently spoke to Deadline about the company’s ambitions. He came to the company, which was founded by Sophie Qi, after stints at Theatrical Rights Worldwide and Samuel French.
“It is one of the most fascinating places to do business,” the New York-based exec said of China, where he spends about half his time. “There are no rules, but then there are all types of rules.”
Asked about Harmonia’s approach to adapting material, he said, “We do cultural bridging work. If we have a secret sauce, that’s probably it.”
Just as Hollywood continues to navigate not only the realm of censors while also looking to decipher what will appeal to Chinese audiences, Harmonia is also still gaining experience in the market.
King Kong, Dingledine noted, is “not a very tour-able piece.” The production “will be a sit-down show in the territory, with a two- to three-year run. It will be a destination piece.”
On the other end of the spectrum is A Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has three actors and 75 puppets. The children’s book it is based on is well-known in China, giving the production a chance to resonate even without the over-the-top spectacle of a big-budget Broadway title.
“The key is understanding both sides of the equation,” Dingledine said. The company is run very much as a partnership between he and Qi, who emigrated from China to attend business school in the U.S. “I come from the West and have a theater background and Sophie knows Chinese culture and local audiences.”
Unlike movies or other parts of popular culture, musical theater “is really scratching an itch” in China, Dingledine said, among audiences looking for a more immediate live experience that something viewed on a screen. “It’s not a dumping ground,” he said. “We have to really produce for the market when we bring a show there.”
The first musicals to come to the territory in the 2000s — long-running staples like Cats or Phantom of the Opera — “were viewed as a ‘pedestal’ art form, something less accessible, almost. That sensibility has really changed.”
The market for musical theater in China “is incredibly young,” Dingledine said. “It’s very millennial in its mindset.”
In order to keep theater aficionados connected to the latest Broadway offerings, Harmonia partnered with Weibo Theatrical, the official theatrical channel on Weibo (Chinese Twitter) at last month’s Tony Awards. The partners delivered 72 hours of live Tonys-related tweets, offering users a look behind the scenes at the Tonys, with commentary and analysis about the nominees and key storylines. The initiative generated a total of nearly 1.5M impressions.
For Dingledine, it was the latest proof point in Harmonia’s China mission. “It’s a much more evolved market than many people realize,” he said.