Why The Chinese Don’t Like Simba to Speak Mandarin
In order to answer this question, let’s think the same thing in another way. Why can’t Mulan be played by a white/black actor? Why does “Captain America” have to be a white guy? Why does “Black Panther” have to be a “physically” black actor? People will have an assumption of what visual pictures they should get based on the story setting or the source material. They will feel uncomfortable or even disappointed if what they get doesn’t match what they think they should get, or if there’s too much a gap between these two.
Localization in China works differently. For most of the Chinese audience, the stories of most of the western musicals happen in the West. It only makes sense to them when they are played by western people, because only in this way can they align what they actually see and what they think they should see. If you insist on hiring Chinese to play Wicked, it is simply not going to work as great as other places in the world. Why can Thanos be purple? Who the hell knows what aliens look like?!!
It also has to do with the perspectives of different audience groups when they watch the same show, which deeply relate to their cultural context.
I have personal experience. A friend of mine, who was a Chinese, went to see Frozen on Broadway one day. The role of Princess Anna that night was played by an understudy who was an African American actress. However, the actress of little Anna was a white girl. She had a very uncomfortable, or say, weird experience watching the show. The distinct different races of these two actresses who are playing the same role have created a huge confusion in her experience getting the story. She was so confused how it could be because it didn’t make sense to her at all that Anna could change her skin color once she grew up. However, maybe an American audience won’t have had this feeling when they saw the same thing, or at least their reaction might be more benign. The reason is, American audiences have the sensibility to social issues like ethnicity justice. It helps them understand the deeper reason behind this arrangement and ease the separation between their visual pictures and their assumptions. However, China doesn’t have similar problems. Without sharing the necessary context, my friend just had a negative reaction to this delicate thought.
However, with everything being said, it’s not saying doing localization in China is impossible.
China for sure can do localization. As a matter of fact, a couple of local theatre companies are doing the localizations of Korean or Japanese musicals. Some of them had pretty good reactions. Besides the similarity in culture heritage given our Asian context, visually, we look more similar to each other than we do with our western peers. It naturally has given the producers a bigger space to play in between what they can physically present and what the audience’s assumptions are. For western musicals, there’s more of a culture distance to cover. Compared with entering the market of Korea or Japan, who open to the West far earlier than China and stay solidly in the same political campaign with the U.S., western productions in their original language is a necessary stop before doing localization in China.