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Sounds of Inner Mongolia capture Broadway producer

By Wang Kaihao (China Daily)

13:49, July 15, 2013

Broadway veteran Don Frantz, associate producer of the Tony Award-winning production Lion King, wants to expand his horizons in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Frantz, whose Chinese name is Dong Fangsi, is also the president of New York-based Town Square Productions.

On June 14, at the opening ceremony of World Music Essence in Hohhot, capital of the autonomous region, Frantz unveiled his plans to produce a full-scale musical about a Mongolian ethnic group for American audiences.

World Music Essence is a newly launched music festival which gathers folk bands from all over the world and combines performances with academic seminars, to encourage the study of ethnomusicology.

"Mongolian people share many common characteristics with Native Americans in terms of music," Frantz say, referring to the fact that versions of some typical Mongolian music styles including "long tune" can also been found on the American continent. "US audiences will therefore not have many difficulties in understanding.

"Human beings have common feelings and cultural difference is not the problem as long as the ethnic group's spirit is understood," he says. "The best selling point of Mongolian music is that it is close to nature. People always love sky and grasslands."

Frantz first visited Inner Mongolia in 2008. He soon fell in love with what he believes is the regions fascinating folk music.

At Shanghai Expo in 2010, Frantz directed a 45-minute Mongolian language romance musical called The Heart of Love that won him much praise. He was so taken with the musical style, he later spent a year traveling around Inner Mongolia to collect materials to create more pieces relevant to the herders' lives. He even bought an apartment in Hohhot to use on his frequent visits to the area.

His other work based on his experiences in Ejin, a banner under the administration of Alxa League, was staged in Beijing in 2011. Khoomei, a traditional throat-singing skill among Tuvans and Mongolians, was used to mimic the sound of a sandstorm.

Frantz is employed as a professor at the Beijing-based Central Academy of Drama. He has experimented with mixing local Chinese dramas and Broadway productions in recent years. In 2007 and 2008 he introduced some Broadway musicals to China, but Frantz says he has now switched direction.

He plans to launch a program in Inner Mongolia to train teachers and offer technical guidance - for example, how to sing songs without using microphones - for local performers so they will have the skills to perform in the US.

"However, the music must be authentic," he says. Frantz says many Chinese bands from ethnic groups tend to incorporate too much modern pop elements in their songs. "Some seem to have tired of their traditional music."

Frantz listed numerous examples of how authentic ethnic music elements have enriched popular Broadway musicals, including his best-known Lion King, which was led by six dancers from Africa.

"These performers (in Lion King) don't think they are dancing. They do it because it's a mimic of warriors in old times, which is passed from generation to generation. It's their daily life. But magic will happen between them and those who have never seen that. It will be the same thing for Inner Mongolia."

Frantz believes traditional Mongolian music, which is known by professionals in music circles in the US but has little chance of being seen by the public, will attract wide attraction.

"It's possible that one day we will have a musical by a Mongolian ethnic group winning a Tony Award," he says. "But, it has to be step by step when it is getting known by more and more people. It will hit Beijing first, then Los Angeles, and finally Broadway.

"It (promotion of traditional music) is not only to present the past. We should care for the future."

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