Behind the scenes at a musical in Sin City

Teresa Teng’s spirit guides a young man past personal tragedy and towards self-discovery and love

Sometime Danwei contributor Nick Frisch covers music and culture in and around Hong Kong and Greater China. He wrote in with the story behind his Op-Ed published in the Wall Street Journal Asia last Wednesday - A popfest With sugar, and some spice which he filed from the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan.

Demolition: The Musical!

Behind the scenes at Love U Teresa! or, Don’t judge a show by its poster by Nick Frisch

Dongguan's reputation precedes it. Last year in a Shenzhen gym, my buddy’s albino muscle-bound fifty-something workout pal lumbered over. "Yo man, I was in Dongguan last week, it was fucking crazy, they bring out fucking fifty girls and you can fuck whichever ones you want. Fuck, man. Fuck."

"I don't normally hang out with that guy," insisted the friend. "But Dongguan is definitely a den of evil. Once, one of my company's field offices there was besieged by Triads. Nothing but factories, gangsters, fat officials, and whores. Fucking Dongguan." He forgot hideous, speculative real-estate developments.

Flash forward to last week, over pizza in Hong Kong. "You're going to Dongguan? For musical theater?"

No expense spared: a rose-encrusted curtain with light-up text.

Legitimate musical theater, no less. The invitation came from a Beijing acquaintance who took a break from his freelance magic career to work as a bilingual consigliere, shepherding the show's Broadway, Taiwanese, and mainland talents around cultural barriers and into a fruitful collaboration.

I had seen posters for Love U, Teresa! (爱上邓丽君) in the corridors of Hong Kong's metro. It looked like dreck.

But sure, why not? Who doesn't miss squat toilets and slogan-toting red banners? Not to mention being literally the only non-Chinese in the audience. It’s a familiar phenomenon, I thought as they stamped my passport at the Lowu border post: flush with cash but terrified that they lack “culture,” government officials overspend on dubious prestige projects.

Boondoggle, for now: the Tangxia Performing Arts Center, which aspires to become an incubator for Chinese musicals.

Tangxia – a Dongguan subdivision rumored to specialize in blue jeans and Nokia phones – did not disappoint. A “Cultural Plaza” was circled by extravagant government buildings, a sparkling hi-tech library, and the blandly angular Tangxia Performing Arts Center. Signs of normal human habitation – a pulled-noodle joint, say, or karaoke brothel – were a full half-hour walk away along massive avenues. I was ushered into a VIP room with chairs arrayed in a U-shape (why do they always look like that?) for reporters’ chance to interview Li Dun, the producer.

In the hall, one banner hung on the balcony: “Carry out creative and superior performance activities, strengthen grassroots Party-building, firm up the foundations of the Party’s rule, promote ever-faster, ever-better economic and social development of Tangxia!”

Another, slightly more prosaic propaganda effort overhung the stage: “[Dong]guan-produced musical ‘Love U Teresa’ Tangxia Previews.” Scattered scenes were rehearsed and tightened – cooperation seemed cordial between the Broadway types and local talent, but working styles were clearly different. “Can you translate!? Tell him to move forward. Into the light! Into the light! Around the sofa!”

– Pre-demolition and backstage, a Shanghai shikumen home marked chai (拆)

Dozing off in the seats, I was roused by a boom as a Shanghai shikumen (石库门) home crumpled onstage. Production values were clearly high – besides the crumpling building, I saw sections of an airplane fuselage, a boat-shaped bandstand on wheels, a levitating heavenly throne, and some swirly number they called the “purgatory set.”

The whole thing looked hit or miss. At dinner break, the Western talent eschewed canteen food to decamp for steaks and coffees. The magician improvised a rather clever “Moonlight Sonata Represents My Heart” mashup on the coffeehouse piano. And then, it was showtime.

Flashback: Teng’s music, and precious tape recorders, began to circulate illicitly after the Cultural Revolution. The mainland ban on her “decadent” songs was finally lifted in 1986.

Initial signs were not promising. A kitschy, dry ice-and-angel-infested depiction of Heaven – Teng died in 1995 – transitions to a story set in Shanghai.

Spunky energy and Broadway poise keep the show from dragging or being overwhelmed by its sugary songs

Then, the surprises mounted.

Clever reworkings of classic songs. Surprisingly realistic details – the Taiwanese bar owner in Shanghai, a familiar breed for anyone who’s visited a saloon or a mango ice shop in that city. The hedonistic materialism, generational and migrational angst, and most surprising of all, forced demolition. A depiction of the widespread practice of painting “拆” (chai - "demolish") on buildings and evicting residents with paltry compensation was an unlikely sight wedged between lush song-and-dance numbers.

By the end I decided, kitschy or not, that I had enjoyed myself. By mainland standards, this was positively ambitious. For a project of this price-tag and prominence, such an unharmonious image was almost unimaginable.

Photos courtesy of author and Songlei Culture & Media.

Love U Teresa is touring nationwide from Dongguan to Shenzhen, Shanghai to Beijing for the first three months of 2011. Tour dates ticketing information is on the Love U Teresa website

There are currently 1 Comments for Behind the scenes at a musical in Sin City.

Comments on Behind the scenes at a musical in Sin City

Hmm... Dongguan isn't a one-dimensional stereotype? What a warm post for the holidays.

Your contempt and sarcasm for mainland arts is fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but why start out with such a crude caricature of the town, Chinese theater, etc? Is it really too much to not be so snide about what apparently seems a pleasant enough musical?

I guess even for "insightful" blogs, that is what the readers want. Pretty disappointing for me, but yes i know "it's my blog and I'll print what I want."

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