"The Road to Fame" re-aired May 2017.

The Road to Fame
Watch five students at China's top drama academy prepare for their graduation showcase.

About the Film

"The Road to Fame" tells a unique story of coming-of-age with Chinese characteristics. The film chronicles the staging of the American musical "Fame" — China’s first official collaboration with Broadway — by the senior class at China's top drama academy as their graduation showcase.

During the eight-month process, five students compete for roles, struggle with pressure from family and authority, and prepare to graduate into a cutthroat and corrupt show business. Part of China’s one-child generation, they have been spoiled growing up but are now obliged to carry on the failed dreams of their parents. They must confront complex social realities and their own anxieties, and in the process of staging Fame, negotiate their own paths to success in today’s China.

Chinese students from the Central Academy of Drama perform in the first staging of the American musical Fame.Chinese students from the Central Academy of Drama perform in the first staging of the American musical Fame.Courtesy of filmmaker Hao Wu.
The School
At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Chinese government merged three established performing art schools into the Central Academy of Drama. Since then, the Academy has been considered China’s premier acting school. Most of China’s best-known international stars — including Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Jiang Wen — graduated from there.

However, a degree from the Academy no longer guarantees a job today, let alone fame. In the 1990s, the government phased out the planned-economy policy of assigning jobs to college graduates. It also dramatically expanded college enrollment across all disciplines. Meanwhile, young people started chasing the glamour of show business en mass. The pool of acting talent has thus grown much faster than what the industry can absorb. Industry anecdote says the number of actors in Beijing is anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000.

The Chinese Production of "Fame"
Students in the "Fame" dressing room.Students in the "Fame" dressing room.Courtesy of filmmaker Hao Wu. "Fame" started as the critically acclaimed 1980 movie and later moved to commercial success on TV and the theater stage. The film tells the story of students at the New York High School of Performing Arts striving for success and fame. It has become a pop culture icon in the West because it appeals to the classic American idea of individualism and of the “self-made-person.” 

In 2008, the Central Academy of Drama sought help from Broadway to stage the first Western musical in Chinese. As China’s economy continues its meteoric rise, the government has begun investing heavily in creative industries to enhance its “soft power.” Developing local musical industry and talents has become part of the endeavor.

The Academy’s American partners suggested "Fame – the Musical" due to the story’s relevance to the Chinese students. The majority of the funding came from the state.

The show was co-produced with Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment and Phoenix Entertainment. It was China’s first official co-production with Broadway.

The Kids
In 1979, China began enforcing the one-child policy nationwide, allowing most couples to have only one child. The policy has helped check China’s population growth, but it has also brought wide-ranging impact to Chinese society.

Between 1980 and 1990, approximately 240 million babies were born. The entire generation grew up with no siblings and were often spoiled by two parents and four grandparents.

Students in the first Chinese staging of the American musical Fame being scolded.Students in the musical getting scolded.Courtesy of filmmaker Hao Wu.

They are also the first generation in China to enjoy uninterrupted economic prosperity since the 1842 Opium War. While their parents suffered through famine, political instability and lack of proper education under Mao Zedong, these single children embrace pop culture and Western-style consumerism. They are savvy with the Internet and digital media, and they have high expectations of material wealth and individual fulfillment.

But the future scares them. For the senior students at the Academy, China’s show business appears ruthlessly competitive, mercenary and corrupt. Meanwhile, they are under tremendous pressure from their parents to succeed. The parents have invested much of their financial resources and their own failed dreams in their only children. Filial piety and family honor therefore constrain the kids’ capability to dream for themselves. 

It is in this environment that our five characters grow increasingly anxious and distrustful of their teachers, the school and the society at large. They come from diverse family backgrounds, have contrasting personalities and harbor different career goals. They struggle with the various cultural values shaping China today — Confucianism, individualism and materialism — and seek guidance from the American coaches to find their own voices. They strive to control their own fate while doing their best to make their parents proud. In the pursuit of Fame on and off stage, they learn to both compromise and persevere on the path to their dreams.

"The Road to Fame" was produced by the Center of Asian American Media.


Related Links

Photos courtesy of the filmaker, Hao Wu.

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