Passion for musicals inspires Li Dun to put China center stage

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A scene from Li Dun's musical Mama, Love Me Once Again. Photo: Li Dun

“In the next three years, China’s musical plays will explode. China will take center stage in Asia’s musical scene,” declares Li Dun, the renowned producer of hits such as Butterflies and Legend of the White Snake.

“Based on my understanding, countries in Europe as well as Japan and Korea experienced explosive growth in their musical industry when their GDP per capita exceeded US$10,000. The finance ministry also predicted in 2015 that China’s GDP per capita is expected to exceed US$10,000 by 2020,” Li explains.

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A scene from Ah! Kuliang! a musical play produced by Li Dun. Photo: Li Dun

Li further explains that research has shown that with the increase in income, the focus from satisfying our basic needs to a healthy state switches to fulfilling our cultural hunger.

The turning point from a healthy state in basic needs to pursuing cultural products is when the GDP per capita reaches US$10,000, Li says. At this point in time, musical theater as one of the performing arts will benefit from this new focus.

A similar view is shared by Wharton marketing professor Qiaowei Shen who notes that people’s spending habits had shifted to beyond their basic needs in favor of cultural attractions in the past decade.

Li is in a good position to make such a statement.

Dubbed by the media as the “Godfather of Chinese musicals,” Li produced many original and popular plays such as Legend of the White Snake, Oriental Beauty – Xi Shi, Butterflies and Love You, Teresa.

His contribution to the musical scene has been internationally recognized with many accolades, including the 2016 Outstanding Contribution Prize at the 10th Daegu International Musical Festival (DIMF).

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Li Dun speaking at a talk hosted by the the Centre for Chinese Studies at Singapore University of Social Sciences. Photo: CCS, SUSS.

Unlike the West and other Asian countries such as Korea and Taiwan, Li says musicals have had a relatively short history in China.

The first homegrown musical in China is Our Modern Youth produced by the China National Opera House in 1982. Since then, the musical industry has grown in leaps and bounds in China.

Li says that since 2011, China’s musical industry has been growing quickly at an average of 20% per year. According to him, there are around 10 original musicals that entered the Chinese market this year.

This is triple the number as compared to a few years ago and it is also testament to the rate the Chinese market is growing.

梦想有时不止是一代人的,它会一代一代传承下去。

A scene from Ah! Kuliang! a musical produced by Li Dun. Photo: Li Dun

In recent years, foreign theater companies have been attracted by the size of the market and its potential in China. Among them is Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, founded by one of the big players of Broadway theater, which announced that it will be managing its first Broadway theater in Shanghai.

At the same time, the Chinese government has also taken steps to promote the musical industry’s growth by investing in a 2 billion yuan (US$290 million) facility in Langfang, Hebei province, that houses a theater, classrooms and production equipment.

The goal of this facility, which is a collaboration between the Hebei provincial government and Beijing-based Ovation Cultural Development group, is to develop musicals that can be performed across China. The Ministry of Culture has also lent its weight by organizing events and international forums to encourage sharing of ideas between musical professionals. A national foundation was created to provide financial support for local musical theater groups.

Amalgamation of the East and West

As one of the pioneers of homegrown Chinese musicals, Li is known for his ability to successfully integrate Eastern and Western cultures into his musicals in a way that strikes a chord with the Chinese audience.

“Director Ang Lee has successfully melded Eastern and Western culture in his work. His films Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi and Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk are stories that are thought-provoking and resonate with audiences internationally,” Li said. 

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Poster for Legend of the White Snake, produced by Li Dun. Photo: Li Dun

Taking Legend of the White Snake as an example, his first musical based on a Chinese fable about the ill-fated romance between a scholar and a snake spirit. Li said the music he wanted to compose for his piece was “cosmopolitan and included elements of Chinese culture.” This means that the music cannot be too (Chinese) folk-like, neither can it be too Western.

Acknowledging that this is a difficult process, Li said he was constantly learning to achieve the knowledge that he now had acquired.

Musical nerd

Growing up, Li did not expect to become a musical producer.

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Producer Li Dun. Photo: Li Dun

He graduated from an arts school and joined a song and dance troupe in Heilongjiang, China.

In 1988, Li fell in love with musicals after watching international hits such as Cats and Les Misérables in London.

“Musicals are the ultimate in the performing arts,” says Li emphatically. “It combines music, songs, dance and technology. Additionally, it is also a commercial product, so you need to think of the market,” he adds.

Li’s foray into musicals took many years of trial and error before he tasted success.

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The cast of Legend of the White Snake. Photo: Li Dun

His first original musical Legend of the White Snake took nine years of preparation. During that time, Li was a nightclub owner and concert producer, and he started experimenting with elements of musicals by including them in the concerts he organized.

“The first version of Legend of the White Snake was totally different from what I wanted and that was after six months of work. I thought to myself ‘I am dead’ – the performance venue was almost ready and the marketing materials had gone out, but the musical was not ready,” recounted Li.

“My house was located on the 19th story at that time. I contemplated whether I should just jump or wait a while. I decided to wait and rest as I was drained.”

Li’s decision proved to be a wise choice.

Turing on the television after a rest, Li stumbled on a Chinese documentary series commemorating the late Premier Zhou Enlai’s centennial anniversary and was so touched by the theme song “You are a Person Like That” in the show that he started crying. Li tracked down Sanbao, the song’s composer, and asked him to write the songs for Legend of the White Snake in 20 days. Sanbao did it in 15.

The result was a resounding hit, with Legend of the White Snake staged more than 1,000 times in Shenzhen. Additionally, Legend was seen as the first to successfully adapt a folk story into a Chinese musical. Li says this success gave him the confidence to continue.

“The key to the success of a musical is finding a good story that contains the elements of a musical – song and dance. For instance, the character of the mother in Mama, Love Me Once Again needs to have some unique characteristics –one such is a salsa dancer who is teaching her son.”

The mother supports the son by being a dancer,” says Li of his musical about the relationship between a loving mother and her rebellious son.

And all these elements need to come together in a coherent and reasonable manner, Li stresses.

10、在机场,小强因为没有拿到留学保证金而心神大乱,用刀误伤了母亲雯娜,万般悔恨地他抱着昏倒的母亲失声痛哭。

A scene from Mama, Love Me Once Again a musical produced by Li Dun. Photo: Li Dun

Despite being in the musical scene for close to 30 years, Li shows no signs of slowing down.

He is currently working on a new musical inspired by the rich history of Dunhuang, a city in the northwestern province of Gansu, which he hopes to stage in Singapore in 2019.

At the end of the day, Li sums up his own musical journey: “I am content doing one thing well in my life.”

And with that, the musical nerd was off to catch another Broadway musical.

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