Producers of musicals take shows overseas

Theater groups opt to go global amid stagnant home market

by Yuki Takahashi

Kyodo

As the population shrinks and competition from overseas stiffens, even the most popular local theater troupes are finding it increasingly difficult to attract new fans at home. So now they’re taking their shows abroad.

For example, in April, the all-female Takarazuka Revue Company performed in Taiwan. It was the first overseas undertaking in which the musical troupe handled everything itself, from ticket sales and promotion to renting a theater.

The show was tailored to impress the Taiwanese audience by including a new routine based on a popular Taiwanese martial arts novel. All performances were sold out.

Unlike the Takarazuka’s past jaunts overseas, often at the request of foreign governments, this time the troupe had to cover all its expenses by itself via ticket sales, sponsors or other means. One Takarazuka official admitted they only managed to break even.

However, given the success of the Taiwan shows, the troupe has received requests to perform in Vietnam and Hong Kong. A group firm has also launched a sales and promotion campaign in Taiwan to lure audiences to its shows in Japan.

Koichi Kobayashi, head of Takarazuka Revue’s board of directors, said the company hopes to make the Taiwan tour a “steppingstone for expansion in Asia ahead of its 100th anniversary.”

Launched in 1913 as the Takarazuka Shokatai (Takarazuka Chorus), the Takarazuka Revue performed its first show the following year and will mark its centennial in April 2014.

Meanwhile, Johnny & Associates Inc., a talent agency that manages groups of male pop idols, including SMAP, is working on ways to attract more foreign fans and lure them to Japan.

In August, for example Johnny’s website began offering information in English, Korean and both simplified and traditional Chinese.

“We hope to make it more accessible and user-friendly to our overseas fans, from whom we receive a great deal of interest.”

Also, when the company performed the musical “Johnny’s World” at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, some seats were reserved for foreign visitors, and live English guidance was provided by a performer who had studied abroad. During the show’s three-month run starting last November, about 3,200 visitors from 22 countries attended.

But entertainers’ efforts to attract global audiences aren’t limited to the audience level. At Shiki Theatre Company, which representative Keita Asari proudly describes as a “multinational team,” about 10 percent of its 600 actors and actresses are from China and South Korea.

The leading star in its latest musical, “The Little Mermaid,” which began in April, is Shion Tanihara from South Korea.

And Yumeko Aki, who took the baton from Tanihara in July, is from China.

In Japan, which is often said to be the third-largest market for musicals after Britain and the United States, Takarazuka, Johnny’s and Shiki are among the top producers and their theaters are constantly filled.

In recent years, however, a flood of foreign musical productions hailing not only from New York’s Broadway and London’s West End, but also from elsewhere in Europe and even South Korea — have been well-received in Japan and are gaining popularity.

With the nation’s population in decline and people’s interests continuing to diversify in this modern age, there is little hope that local theater companies can engineer a drastic increase in audiences down the road, and many are eager to search for new opportunities abroad.

But experts say much more has to be done if the companies are to succeed. Hitomi Hagio, a theater and film critic, pointed out that Japanese productions are typically inclined to sell tickets mainly to a solid base of loyal fans and often fail to create elements in their performances to attract new audiences.

“(Companies) must create the necessary environment so that various kinds of customers, including foreign visitors, can purchase tickets to the shows,” Hagio said.

“I hope they can think out of the box and broaden the spectrum of musical fans with performances that will be fascinating even to audiences abroad, such as making good use of previous hits or remaking overseas productions into ones with a Japanese taste.”