Skip to comments.Politics and Glitz Meet at 'Les Mis' China Debut
Posted on 07/31/2002 2:20:32 PM PDT by Conagher
SHANGHAI, China (Reuters) - In a hushed auditorium in Shanghai's People's Square, hundreds of Chinese hold their breath as an actor mounts a revolving barricade, plants a billowing red flag and strikes up a song about revolution.
A chorus of comrades -- many of them students -- join the call to arms, only to die in a volley of bullets from the army offstage.
The parallels with China's recent past -- the 1949 communist revolution and the Tiananmen Square student-led pro-democracy movement -- are undeniable.
But what really strikes a chord with the audience in the packed, multimillion-dollar theater in China's chic commercial hub as the smash musical "Les Miserables" makes its Shanghai debut is the sheer Broadway magic of it all.
The audience of business folk and students was bowled over by the songs, costumes and sets of "Les Mis," which played in more than 30 countries before becoming the first Broadway production to enter China's tightly sealed cultural world.
"It was amazing, the costumes, the music, everything," said 15-year-old high school student Huang Xiaoyan at an evening performance after the July launch of the production.
Her classmate Hong Yumei agreed as the pair headed for a souvenir stand stocked with CDs and T-shirts.
The musical, adapted from Victor Hugo's tale of street urchins, students and reformed thieves plotting a new future for France, had powerful echoes with China's own turbulent history.
"The students waving the red flag reminded me of images when China was liberated by the Reds -- the Communist Party," said Tong Jianliang, a 28-year-old student.
ECHOES OF TIANANMEN
But few said the stirring anthems and dead students reminded them of one of the more recent and rawest chapters of Chinese history -- the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed student demonstrators were killed by the Chinese army.
"It doesn't remind me of Tiananmen," said 53-year-old Ju Xinhua, who works for a state-owned steel company. "I think instead of Chinese opera, only how could that compare with Les Mis's lighting, the sets, the scale?"
The Chinese government probably agrees with Ju, having declared the production free of subversive content, as it does for any play, movie or television program shown in the country.
But the musical has eerie echoes of the Tiananmen massacre, an event that has haunted China's foreign trade negotiations and Olympic bid as recently as last year.
It was said that student demonstrators in the heart of Beijing broadcast the popular "Les Miserables" song, "Do you hear the people sing?" over loudspeakers during their pro-democracy protests in June 1989.
After the People's Liberation Army cracked down on the Tiananmen protests, more than 50,000 people flocked in sympathy to Shanghai's People's Square, a site now home to the grand theater that hosted Les Mis.
China, which endured turbulent change during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76, is again undergoing massive upheaval as it reforms inefficient state-owned enterprises.
It has laid off millions of workers and struggled to care for them.
Democracy, it seems, is a small issue in comparison.
"The appeal of democracy is not as obvious as it used to be," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China.
"People see the laid-off workers, the problems in reforming state-owned enterprises -- and democracy is not directly going to help any of that. Beijing's propaganda has been rather effective in that respect."
Some of the "Les Mis" crowd scenes recall angry mass protests in China's northeastern "rust belt," where tens of thousands of laid-off state workers have clashed sporadically with police in the past two years over unpaid wages and welfare.
But booming, free-spirited Shanghai is in many ways a world away from both the desperate rust belt and Beijing politics: industry is thriving and talk over cocktails is more likely to be business than unemployment benefits.
All the more reason why Shanghai is unconcerned by the musical's talk of revolution.
"June 4?" said Hong, when asked about the 1989 protests.
"Oh, I guess you mean Tiananmen," said her friend, Huang. "I guess they would remind me of Tiananmen."
The musical's British producer, Cameron Mackintosh, said he was happy to let the audience decide.
"They are sophisticated people here, they know exactly what parallels can be drawn," he told a news conference.