‘The Lion King’ premieres at Shanghai Disneyland as Broadway comes to China

Guests walk into the Walt Disney Theatre at Shanghai Disney Resort on Tuesday for the premiere of "The Lion King."
(AFP/Getty Images)

The first Mandarin-language production of “The Lion King” premiered Tuesday night at Shanghai Disneyland, part of a series of events scheduled before the park’s grand opening Thursday.

A host of executives and Chinese and foreign celebrities attended, including Walt Disney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger, former NBA star Yao Ming, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and director of the original “Lion King” stage musical Julie Taymor.

Tuesday’s performance was close in content to the original Broadway production, which premiered in 1997, but also featured an assortment of distinctly Chinese elements, including a Peking Opera musical number and shadow puppet lions and giraffes.


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“The Lion King” is the highest-grossing show in Broadway history. It has been seen by about 85 million people in about 22 countries, Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said in advance remarks on Tuesday.

Broadway producers have long coveted the Chinese market for its 1.4-billion-strong population and rapidly expanding consumer class. Yet bridges between China and Broadway remain few and far between.

China has no tradition of Broadway-style song-and-dance theater. The Chinese government has built cutting-edge performance halls in several cities without investing in productions to fill them. Mandarin-language productions remain rare.

The first Broadway musical to show in China was “Les Miserables,” which ran in Shanghai in 2002. Since then, a handful of Broadway productions have toured the country, including “Cats” and “The Sound of Music.” A Mandarin-language production of “Mamma Mia” showed at the Shanghai Grand Theatre in 2011, featuring localized dance routines and dialogue that drew from regional Chinese dialects.

“Understand that in China, the government wants to support entertainment — they want approved [shows] to come into the country,” said Darren Bagert, a Tony-winning Broadway producer who has brought musicals to China. “Broadway grossed last year just over $1 billion — just Broadway alone — but it brought New York City an ancillary income of more than $12 billion. People come to New York to see ‘The Lion King,’ and now for Shanghai, the income could be vast.”


Yet the market is still nascent, he said. “It’s not like here in the U.S. where we have 20 different markets [for Broadway shows],” he continued. “There’s four, maybe five markets in China where shows can even go. In the U.S. we tour major cities, and each city we’ll sit there for months, each show. We don’t have that luxury in China right now.”

DreamWorks Animation is also planning a major tourism development in Shanghai called the Dream Center, which will include 16 theaters for live performances. It’s slated to open in 2018.

China has also invested in Broadway — last year, two Chinese funds, China Media Capital and China Broadway Entertainment, backed three popular Broadway shows: “Hand of God,” “Something Rotten!” and “An American in Paris.”

The Shanghai Disney Resort is nearly twice the size of the Anaheim Resort. It includes Shanghai Disneyland park with six themed lands encircling the Enchanted Storybook Castle, a shopping district and 99 acres of gardens, lakes and parkland.

Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.