By BRUCE DENNILL
Joburg Theatre and Bernard Jay have announced that their highly acclaimed production of the musical The Color Purple will travel to the SAIC-Shanghai Culture Square Theatre in China for 14 performances from July 29 to August 9. The all-South African company, helmed by director Janice Honeyman, will give Chinese audiences their first experience of this Tony- and Grammy-winning musical.
The SAIC-Shanghai Culture Square opened in 2011. The 1,800 seat theatre has hosted Broadway and West End titles and niche musicals such as Titanic, Notre Dame de Paris and now The Color Purple. The theatre also strives to cultivate and develop a love for musical theatre.
Jay discusses the scope of this new venture.
Is this really the first time that The Color Purple has been staged in China? It seems there have been so many shows touring there in recent years. If so, does it have something to do with cultural references? The story has obvious resonance in South Africa, but are there equivalents there?
In professional productions, The Color Purple has only played across the US, a little in the UK, small bits in Brazil and the Netherlands, and South Africa. Going to China opens up opportunities I’ve never had before as a producer. I’ve previously worked with material that had been done more or less everywhere before.
Once we saw we had a success during the first run in Johannesburg, and there were good notices, industry people started flying in to see the show. That gave me an idea that the production may be able to travel elsewhere, so I enquired about the rights, and found to my surprise that it had hardly been anywhere! For now, we have the exclusive rights for the whole of Asia, Australia, Germany, France and some other interesting places – even Luxembourg. That took the pressure off me worrying that someone else would take the gap.
That was part of the joy of building up relationships in the industry, particularly with Steve Spiegel at Theatrical Rights Worldwide in New York. We also had a wonderful reaction from the show’s three composers who came over to see the show in Joburg at their own cast. Their being on board made it so much easier to move forward, especially because this production was generated here in South Africa, not in partnership with a Broadway or West End company.
I was fortunate in that the show had just become a hit again in the US when I approached the agents. They were wondering why nobody else had approached them. But at the time, it made a lot of sense locally because of the subject matter. Of our production, we said to agents: “This belongs to us, but you can earn commission if you place it, and the eventually did so in Shanghai, with possibilities for South Korea, Beijing and Australia.
Getting to China has taken 18 months to negotiate, but now we see Shanghai as a sort of anchor tenant. It’ll give us a base to work from.
You’ve said the South African production is moving “lock, stock and barrel” to China. How is it different to the show on Broadway, and what is involved in technical terms?
Janice Honeyman and I have only ever taken on non-replica productions. This version of The Color Purple is unique – all we started with as the script and the music. We will lift our production as is to tour it, with only small modifications that are needed because the details of the Joburg Theatre stage are different. So for instance, when we have the people in church downstage on the sides to begin with, we now need to fit that all under the proscenium arch.
The SAIC-Shanghai Culture Square Theatre is bigger than the Joburg Theatre – it holds 1,800 – but we have really good sound design and great singers who are used to larger rooms than the Mandela. And the Shanghai theatre also has a wonderful reputation for excellent sound equipment and a brilliant in-house team.
There are long lists of all the equipment that is needed, from the lights down to the number of tables used for front of house purposes. We use scale drawings to – while we’re here – place our show on their stage and figure out what changes we need to make. Stan Knight is helping with that and Mannie Manim is working on the lighting, which is perhaps the biggest challenge. That and making sure that everyone understands each other.
The production manager from their side, along with an interpreter, is coming to the Joburg revival run to learn the show. All of this is stuff I’m learning, 55 years into my career, as I’m taking on the role of production manager too.
The growth of musical theatre in China: how important is it for the genre or art form in general, and how much does it matter to South African performers and producers?
It opens up a whole new world. It’s been a few years now that artists can tour there and have exciting experiences. It’s still a communist state, but it has opened up to different perspectives and ideas. Chicago, which has just toured there, is a daring piece, and the Culture Square Theatre has just hosted a production of A Spring Awakening.
We had to get government permission for The Color Purple’s script – they’re now welcoming a show with themes like female empowerment. This trend is saying something positive about China; opening up discussions that could help change society. And that in turn creates an amazing opportunity for writers.
Opportunities like this are changing the face of being a producer, as there is now the need to plan projects with more facets, extending over a longer time period, and possibly being staged in a range of different countries.
For me, the timing was good. I became available after 14 years of working in a full-time role at Joburg Theatre. Now I have more time to research and dedicate to the possibilities of shows like The Color Purple. Happily, it’s the show probably fallen most in love with. I can honestly say I never get bored with it, no matter how many times I watch it performed. It has a huge amount of emotion in it; so much to say. So it was a wonderful coincidence when this synergy came about.
For now, it may end up being just a few weeks in China, but people from other territories have committed to seeing it in April in Johannesburg. And as an independent producer, it’s good to be able to continue to build relationships and to learn to trust each other – to know that all the business will be done properly.