Broadway’s ‘Spring Awakening’ Is Ready For China, But Is China Ready For ‘Spring Awakening’?

Courtesy Production

EXCLUSIVE Spring Awakening, the 2006 emotionally powerful, sexually frank and Tony-winning musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, has been staged around the world, and now for the first time is heading to China. Yes, the South Park-hating, frequently censoring and much in the news China.

Set for a limited 13-performance Shanghai engagement in January 2020, the staging will be directed and choreographed by Spencer Liff, who choreographed the acclaimed 2015 Broadway revival of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening that featured hearing and deaf actors and utilized both English and American Sign Language.

Now he’ll direct and choreograph a Spring Awakening with an entirely Chinese cast that will speak the dialogue in Chinese and sing the songs in English. The production will be performed at Theatre Above, a 600-seat venue in downtown Shanghai. A national tour will follow.

The announcement was made today by producers Harmonia Holdings, Ltd. and SAIC•Shanghai Culture, who in a first-time partnership will stage the first professional production of the eight-time Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. The SAIC-Shanghai Culture Square venue has presented productions including Phantom of the Opera, Kinky Boots and Titanic.

But even compared to Kinky Boots, Spring Awakening exponentially ups the potentical shock value. The musical is a modern landmark in American theater, an explicit tale of 19th Century German teenagers coming to grips with their sexuality – both straight and gay – and Sater’s lyrics and book that deals head-on with such controversial topics as abortion and suicide.

So will Shanghai audiences see and hear the exact same Spring Awakening Broadway theatergoers embraced? Yes and no.

“It is our job as creatives and producers to preserve and deliver the authors’ vision to the Chinese audience,” said producer Ken Dingledine in a statement provided to Deadline. “We will not make any changes to the piece without the authors’ permission.”

Dingledine, President of Harmonia Holdings, added that the musical will be “specifically tailored to the Chinese audience.” He said the staging will in some ways be “more implicit and less literally representative.”

The producer said that director/choreographer Liff, one of Broadway’s busiest choreographers (Head Over Heels, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, among others), “is interested in employing elements of choreography and staging to create images and communicate moments in the show that are more implicit and less literally representative.”

“He came into the project,” Dingledine continued, “with deep knowledge and history with the piece, where he’s already worked on a very ‘reimagined’ version of the show yet remained true to the original subject matter and gained appraise from authors and critics.” (Dingledine’s “reimagined” is referring to the Deaf West staging.)

Spencer Liff

In a statement, Liff said, “Spring Awakening was a ground-breaking piece on Broadway, not only because of its stunning pop-rock score, but the fact that it became a star-making machine and a phenomenon when it comes to attracting young audiences. I am looking forward to creating a brand-new production for the local audience that incorporates Chinese elements. After the auditions in New York and in Shanghai, I am very excited that our production might just present to the Chinese musical theatre market its next superstar.”

He’s not exaggerating about the star-making: The original 2006 Broadway production directed by Michael Mayer featured such little known or altogether unknown actors as Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr., Lilli Cooper, and To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Gideon Glick.

Bilingual talent auditions for the upcoming Spring Awakening have been held in both New York City and Shanghai. The production will feature set, lighting, sound, and costume design by an all-Chinese creative team.

“It is going to be a thrilling process to have top creatives from the East and the West shape this piece around emerging young talents in China,” said Sophie Qi, CEO and Founder of Harmonia. “I am very excited to put forth this new iteration of Spring Awakening that would stand for world-class quality, yet is authentic to Chinese aesthetics in its artistic expression.”

Richard Fei, Deputy General Manager of SAIC-Shanghai Culture Square, said in a statement that the story of Spring Awakening “resonates deeply with today’s Chinese millennial audiences – the dominant musical theatre audiences in China.”

The producers also suggest that the partnership will establish “a model of cross-cultural production that marries industry resources, best practices, and market insights from Broadway and China across all stages of production.”

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