Curtain Call Triumphs: Celebrating the Achievements of Musical Theater Students

Curtain Call Triumphs: Celebrating the Achievements of Musical Theater Students

Lights, Camera, and a Whole Lot of Jazz Hands

Well, I’m back in Taipei – a beautiful, chaotic, whirlwind of a jet-lagged trip home from Michigan, complete with a white Christmas and sightings of wild turkeys right outside our window. It’s great to be home in Taipei for another beautiful, chaotic, whirlwind relaunch into my next few months in Taiwan.

Now, I must confess, I don’t have a clear plan for this week’s blog post. My time in the US was blissfully devoid of any advance planning, so the first installment of 2023 might be even more meandering than usual. But fear not, dear readers – if you’re interested in hearing about a bilingual Taiwanese musical called “Taiwan Hollywood 台灣有個好萊塢” and all the opportunities it presents for jazz hands, then please, read on. Alternatively, if you just want to listen to some fun songs, scroll down to the penultimate section of this post for lots of Spotify and YouTube links.

Taiwanese National Day and the Rise of Bilingual Musical Theater

Remember Taiwanese National Day last October? Do you recall the charming youth who demanded, “Where’s President Tsai Ing-wen?” And do you remember the private performance for said president, in which jazz hands featured prominently? I certainly do.

At the time, I suggested that the film canon laid out in Taiwan’s National Day celebrations constructs a Taiwan that is worthy of international recognition as a distinct social, political, and cultural entity in its own right. Likewise, the performance of “Taiwan Hollywood” for the great and the good of Taiwan’s political class established the country’s film industry as having its own kind of cultural capital worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as epicenters of global cultural production, such as Hollywood.

However, there were lingering questions left unanswered in my original take on Taiwan’s National Day celebrations. Well, dear reader, it turns out that there is greater context to this musical than just a random one-off performance streamed on YouTube. The performance for Tsai Ing-wen was actually the introductory-concluding scene to the 2019 musical “Taiwan Hollywood 台灣有個好萊塢” – a bilingual Mandarin-Taiyu musical about the Taiwanese film industry.


Exploring the Multilingual Landscape of Taiwanese Musical Theater

By National Day, the show was in rehearsals for a December 2022 revival at the newly-opened, state-of-the-art Taipei Performing Arts Center. The company responsible for the production is the Taipei-based Studio M 瘋戲樂工作室, an organization that bills itself as a musical theater troupe that is not just a theater troupe – “一個不只是劇團的音樂劇劇團.”

According to their company bio, “To Studio M, creating theater is not just about creating theater. Rather, it’s about putting beliefs into action, stimulating the industry, giving audiences a conception of musical theater, and exploring even more thematic and formal possibilities for Chinese-language musical theater.”


A Multilingual Musical Romcom with a Taiwanese Twist

“Taiwan Hollywood” is, at its core, a classic Broadway-style romantic comedy. We have a frustrated but talented boy playwright who has a meet-cute with an innocent girl aspiring to movie stardom. Mutually inspired by one another, they team up with an intrepid, albeit scrappy, group of creatives to shoot a Taiyu (the Mandarin term for the Taiwanese language) film.

Along the way, there’s a misunderstanding that results in a brush with prison and sex work, respectively, but it all blows over by the end of Act II. The group makes their film, the boy and girl marry, and everyone wins a Golden Horse Award – sort of like the Oscars of the Sinophone world.

Linguistic Diversity as a Dramatic Driver

Despite the significant similarities to a traditional Broadway musical, “Taiwan Hollywood” departs from the norm in several key ways. One of the most striking differences is the role of language in the show.

Unlike any mainstream Anglophone musical I can think of, this is a resolutely bilingual musical. Bilingualism is introduced as a problematic of the play from the very first meeting between the male lead, Zhenghua 正華, and the female lead, Qiuyue 秋月.

In this scene, the naïve movie fan Qiuyue repeatedly tries to quote Taiyu films to Zhenghua, who is unbeknownst to her the screenwriter of said films. His initial pleasure at encountering a fan quickly fades, however, in the face of Qiuyue’s mangled Taiyu pronunciations. One of the gags in this scene is his increasingly despairing attempts to correct her pronunciation – a gag that, on my second viewing of the play, turned into an echo of what was happening around me in the audience, where elderly viewers sitting near me scoffingly corrected the mispronounced Taiyu from their seats.


Navigating the Linguistic Landscape of Taiwan

Throughout the play, Taiyu is a source of both identity and dramatic tension. For example, a major source of conflict early in the musical is the fact that Qiuyue lands a leading role in a Taiyu movie despite speaking barely a lick of Taiyu. Thus, Qiuyue’s character arc is partly a story of gaining legitimacy through mastery of Taiyu.

Conversely, two of the Taiyu film stars in the musical’s first act abandon Taiyu in the second act in favor of standard Mandarin – a move that is handsomely remunerated, but at the cost of compromising their legitimacy through the abandonment of Taiyu.

Finally, when the male lead is released from prison in the second act, he tries to gather his old cast of characters around himself to revive his creative career. In response, his old colleagues one by one tell him that Taiyu films are dead and Mandarin is the future. Eventually, he wins them over with the promise that they will produce a Mando-Tai film – a story of gaining legitimacy through the reclamation of Taiyu in the context of a polyglot society.

A Musical Vision of Multilingual Taiwan

This final stage of the musical, in which the characters’ Mando-Tai film wins a slew of Golden Horse awards, is where “Taiwan Hollywood’s” vision of a multilingual Taiwanese identity becomes most obvious. Where Qiuyue initially gains legitimacy through mastery of the local language, and where other characters lose legitimacy through their abandonment of Taiyu, the end game for this musical is a linguistic ecosystem in which Mandarin and Taiyu are both necessary languages, and in which the lack of either impoverishes both comprehension and cultural competence.

This vision of necessary bilingualism was borne out in the musical itself. In a nod to declining rates of Taiyu proficiency in Taiwan’s younger generations, all of the Taiyu songs and dialogue were supertitled. Because language was not an intrinsic barrier to comprehension, many of the Taiyu gags received big laughs from the audience. But there was also a subset of jokes that drew titters from a consistently smaller portion of audience members in both of the performances I attended. Although I have no way to prove this, my strong suspicion is that these were jokes that relied on Taiyu wordplay or other colloquialisms that simply didn’t translate into the supertitles projected on the side of the stage. At these moments, the significantly smaller subset of truly bilingual audience members were the ones who were in on the joke.


Blending Global Sounds with a Distinctly Taiwanese Aesthetic

Now, I’ve just spilled a lot of pixels on discussing plot and language – areas in which I have no official training or expertise. What’s interesting to me, though, is the way this vision of polyglot Taiwan comes to be reflected in the show’s musical score.

In some ways, the music of “Taiwan Hollywood” sounds a lot like a musical you might hear on Broadway or in London’s West End. Like many musicals, a small pit band is used to create a variety of musical colors and sound effects, and the score makes ample use of recurring themes that transform throughout the musical based on dramatic situation and character development.

The music itself is an eclectic mix of styles that are used to emplace listeners in the 1960s musical milieu in which the narrative unfolds. For example, the opening number, the very scene that Tsai Ing-wen saw for National Day celebrations, starts with a reference to the kind of military songs that would have been a staple of public life during the KMT era. At roughly 1:10, however, the soundscape transitions to an electric guitar-saxophone-drum set accompaniment that calls to mind mid-century rock of the kind that would have been emanating from American military bases at the time.

Listen to the opening number on Spotify

Elsewhere, the score captures the mid-century global appetite for Latin music through the use of dance rhythms like the cha-cha. Latin rhythms had been popular in the Sinosphere since the first efflorescence of popular song in 1920s and 30s Shanghai, as with this rhumba performed by Bai Hong 白虹:

Listen to “Home home home 家 家 家” on Spotify

And, of course, the final recurring soundscape that appears in this musical is what I think of as the “true love” soundscape – largely aligning with major trends in contemporary musical theater power ballads.

A Distinctly Taiwanese Vocal Aesthetic

While many of the musical resources deployed throughout this musical are ones that you could find in any Broadway musical, and although this show takes the cultural capital produced by Hollywood as an aspirational metric of success, there is something about the aesthetic of this musical in performance that strikes me as a product of the distinct cultural forces that are unique to Taiwan.

Part of this is, of course, linguistic. The play’s unique combination of Mandarin and Taiyu contributes to a vocal sonority that English simply can’t produce. This shouldn’t be surprising – in genres like art song and opera, French, German, and Italian linguistic sonorities operate in concert with musical factors to create the distinct character of those vocal repertories.

But another major part of what makes this musical stand out is the vocal aesthetic that characterizes a lot of the singing. The belting that fills this show is equally far removed from anything that might be produced by artists as varied as Ethel Merman, Idina Menzel, Bernadette Peters, or Audra McDonald. Perhaps the closest analogy that springs readily to mind is a Kristin Chenoweth-style twang belt, but even that is not quite what’s happening with many of the female singers in this cast.

Instead, the belt employed by the vast majority of this cast lies somewhere between the robustness of Broadway stylings and the exaggeratedly sylph-like femininity that characterizes much (though not all) of contemporary Mandopop. This trend is not as pronounced in the original cast recording I have linked to here, but the general principle still holds with voices such as that of Qiuyue.


Weaving a Tapestry of Taiwanese Identity

As I said earlier, the plot of this musical seems to put forth a vision of Taiwan as a multilingual society in which the peaceful coexistence of Taiyu and Mandarin is a mutually enriching arrangement. Though the musical score overlaps with this vision, the two are not completely redundant.

In the score, a global set of influences is unified under the rubric of a distinctly Taiwanese performance aesthetic. As with the text of the play, the implication is that far from representing some sort of cultural monolith, Taiwanese society’s most defining characteristic is its linguistic, social, and cultural diversity.

I’ll leave you with a final word from “Taiwan Hollywood’s” composer and music director, Wang Hsi-wen 王希文, on his hopes for this musical: “Regardless of whether it’s Taiyu or Mandarin, I hope that this fun and moving story will allow you to hear the beauty of our language and rediscover the glory we once had.”

So, if you’re dreaming of a summer filled with singing, dancing, and acting, why not consider checking out the Musical Theater Center – where the spotlight is on fun, creativity, and unforgettable experiences? Whether you’re a shower singer, a karaoke enthusiast, or someone who has always dreamed of belting out a Broadway ballad, there’s a place for you here. Come and let your inner star shine on stage!


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