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Disney Scours China for Talent to Introduce Shanghai to Show Tunes

Performers share a light moment during the rehearsal of Jack Sparrow's Stunt Spectacular in Treasure Cove at the Shanghai Disney Resort.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Performers share a light moment during the rehearsal of Jack Sparrow's Stunt Spectacular in Treasure Cove at the Shanghai Disney Resort.

When Niu Tianlong graduated from the Shanghai University of Sport last year, the 22-year-old planned to pursue his passion for a full-contact, Chinese martial art known as wushu. Then Disney came calling. Nowadays, he’s lacing up his knee-high boots, donning pantaloons and a blue bandanna, and rehearsing a sword-fighting scene ahead of the June 16 opening of the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney theme park.

“The physical part is not tough at all compared to wushu, but the performance, the expressions on my face and acting—that’s very challenging,” says Niu, who has been hired to play a swashbuckler and entertain park visitors between attractions.

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In Disney’s effort to expand its signature character-based entertainment to China, figuring out millions of small details such as the Mandarin translation for hakuna matata have been the least of its worries. Instead, managing an epic, yearlong casting call for the 1,000 performers for marquee musicals such as The Lion King and all manner of other acts that make the Magic Kingdom such a powerful draw has proved more challenging.

Performance arts training on the mainland tends toward classical Chinese forms in major urban areas, and is pretty much nonexistent everywhere else. In the U.S., there’s a surplus of people who can act, sing, dance, or do all three. In China, the relatively small number of performers who’ve studied Western musical forms are more likely to have studied operatic bel canto pieces than belt-it-out Broadway tunes.

Performers rehearse for the Jack Sparrow's Stunt Spectacular in Treasure Cove at the Shanghai Disneyland.
Performers rehearse for the Jack Sparrow's Stunt Spectacular in Treasure Cove at the Shanghai Disneyland.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

That’s forced Disney to improvise. Years ago, when Shanghai Disney was in the concept phase, the company started building its own talent development network from scratch by partnering with 30 arts institutes around the country. “Disney is doing something in China that has never been done before,” says University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Elliott Weiss, who has written a case study on Shanghai Disney. “The question is when the park can be profitable, given the additional investment they have had to make finding and training talent.”

 

Disney has steadily cultivated its brand with Chinese millennials, many of whom first encountered Mickey Mouse only in 1986, when the state-controlled China Central Television network started to broadcast Disney animation. In 2008 the company launched its Disney English language training schools in China, starting in Shanghai. Disney now has 28 learning centers in seven cities across China that teach kids ranging from ages 2 to 12, with class materials featuring Disney characters such as Buzz Lightyear and Nemo.

Yu Liang, 24, says she became entranced with Disney after learning English by studying The Little Mermaid. When she entered the drama and dance program at Shanghai Normal University in 2011, it coincided with the first year of Disney’s outreach program to arts schools. For the rest of her undergraduate program, she attended Disney’s talks during on-campus recruitment visits and participated in performance clinics. Last year, Yu landed the female lead role in a Shanghai Disneyland production based on the Pirates of the Caribbean character Jack Sparrow. “I almost cannot believe it has happened,” she says. “I wanted to work for Disney for 10 years or 20 years.”

Clockwise from left: Yu Liang, Niu Tianlong and Li Weiling.
Clockwise from left: Yu Liang, Niu Tianlong and Li Weiling.
Photographers: Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg; Victor Wang/Bloomberg

For more experienced performers such as Li Weiling, 28, who will play Nala in the Mandarin-version of the Lion King musical, a callback from Disney after a year of auditioning was a huge career break. The Xiamen graduate of the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music had been teaching full-time after finishing a two-year run in 2014 as Silibub in a Chinese-language production of Cats. “In my second year of university, my teacher gave me Nala’s song, Shadowland, to sing,” she says. “I didn’t know about this musical then. Now I am trying to cope with the pressure of being China’s first Nala.”

With less than a month to go before the Shanghai Disney opening, Chinese performers are rehearsing with directors and trainers flown in from the U.S. After Disney gets its troupe ready for prime time, the next challenge may be keeping them.

Starting next year, Shanghai Disney will face greater competition. DreamWorks Animation has a $2.4 billion DreamCenter park scheduled for 2017 in Shanghai, while China’s Haichang Ocean Park Holdings will open China’s largest marine park there next year. And Six Flags Entertainment will open a park on the mainland, its first outside North America, in 2019. Industry consultant Aecom forecasts that 59 more theme parks will open in China by 2020, serving an estimated 220 million park-goers annually. That’s roughly the current size of the entire U.S. market. “After it has invested in training,” says Darden’s Weiss, Disney “might lose the talent to competitors.”

Niu, the martial arts student turned pirate, says he’s enjoying his crash course in show business, though his proud parents back in his home village in Henan province are a little puzzled by the career change. “In the village, we know characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but you don’t really know that they belong to a company called Disney,” he says. Shanghai Disney is all about changing that.