Song and dance: In Korea, it’s bigger than ever

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Song and dance: In Korea, it’s bigger than ever

The Korean market for musical theater is going through an unprecedented boom.
Touring productions of foreign musicals with budgets well past 10 billion won ($9 million) are lining up to play Seoul. A Japanese musical production company is trying to set up a direct-sales system in Korea.
Local business conglomerates are jumping on the bandwagon. Following the Tongyang Group’s lead, CJ Entertainment has flung itself into the trend. Companies are competing to take the lead.
Observers of the musical theater scene here are comparing it to Korea’s movie scene in the early 1990s. Back then, Korean cinema was seen as almost dead, oppressed by foreign film distributors. But things began to change in the mid-1990s. Talented young men aspiring to be filmmakers went to film school or left the country to study abroad in the United States or Europe. Beginning in the late 1990s, these young men began making films here, invigorating Korean cinema.
Among people involved in the musical theater industry, it’s common to hear the opinion that the business “reminds me of the movie industry 10 years ago.” Many young Korean theater artists who are now studying in theater capitals like New York and London will be coming back in four or five years, they say, bringing their enthusiasm, talent and knowledge of the craft with them.
In the meantime, interest in foreign musicals is high. In July, Seensee Musical Company will present “Cabaret” at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. Jeong So-ae, public relations officer at Seensee, said, “This is the first time Korean audiences will get to see the Broadway cast perform.” In August, LG Arts Center hosts the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast” (see story below), brought to town by Zemiro, a local company that’s a branch of Tongyang Group.
That’s not the end. Next year’s musical scene is even more promising. Around late summer, “Phantom of the Opera” is expected to launch in Seoul, courtesy of local company CJ Entertainment. Instead of a local cast, as with a previous version of “Phantom” that played Seoul, this time the musical will feature Broadway performers.
Another Disney musical, “Aida,” based on the classic opera but with music by Elton John, is scheduled to open in June of next year at LG Arts Center. “Aida” is scheduled to play there for no less than 10 months and 270 performances, at a budget of 10 billion won. This would be the longest run ever in Seoul for a large-scale musical.
Finally, Zemiro is scheduled to bring the colossal Broadway hit “The Producers” to the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in October of next year.
Shiki, a company in Japan that runs eight theaters dedicated exclusively to musical theater, plans to open one in Jamsil in southern Seoul.
“We estimate the potential number of audience members in the present musical market to be 300,000,” said Lee Seong-hun, performance business director at CJ Entertainment. “If a conglomerate takes part in the musical scene, it would enlarge the industry even further.”
Also in the works are plans to establish theaters that exclusively present musicals, like Shiki’s. “Within a couple of years, we’re planning to build a theater that’s as big as LG Arts Center, which has a seating capacity of 1,200,” said Song Han-saem, marketing manager at Zemiro.
Han So-yeong, a performance business staffer at CJ Entertainment, said, “We’re looking for the right place to build our own theater.” The Seocho district in southern Seoul and Seoul Arts Center are making moves to build musical-only theaters.
The thinking is that four or five years at most would be enough for the stock of commercially viable foreign musicals to run out. Then the market would turn to original Korean productions.
Conglomerates and local production companies are already getting ready for this possibility. Zemiro is working on three original productions, one for a large hall and another two for small theaters. Seensee Musical Company has seen progress in their original productions.
Some, however, voice concerns. “It remains a question whether the audience for the imported musicals would move to the original ones,” said Kim Seong-hee, a professor of cultural business management at Kyung Hee University. “This attempt must come with efforts to cultivate the audience’s tastes, which would in the long run make for a sound market.”

A magical transformation from silver screen to stage

On an early spring day recently, Manhattan was soaking with rain and whipped by cold breezes. But none of it seemed to discourage the crowd gathered around the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on West 46th Street, just off Broadway.
This crowd was gathered to see the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast,” based on the company’s beloved animated film. Children could be seen, but most of the crowd consisted of adults.
So there I was, wondering what attracted all these grown-ups to see a fairy tale for children. But once the curtain rose, I could see why. Before I knew it, I was nodding and even rubbing my eyes in astonishment.
That cottage familiar from the film was there, and so were the familiar characters. But they seemed to have come to life on the stage, full of vigor and energy. They looked as if they’d walked out of the big, silver screen. Disney amazed us with its ability to turn fairy tale into reality.
The audience that evening responded enthusiastically whenever characters like Lumiere the candlestick came out on stage. No wonder this musical won the Tony Award for best costumes when it debuted in 1994.
Seol Do-yun, who is involved in bringing the musical to Seoul, said, “For the Seoul performances, every single costume will be imported, though the cast will be all local.”
The musical runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a bit of a shaky start. Midway through, however, it turns into a rollercoaster ride. We feel the Beast’s loneliness and agony; Belle, the lead female character, is appealing and believable as she accepts the Beast and finally falls in love with him. The climax, in which Belle declares her love to the Beast, is overwhelming, and the duel in heavy rainfall between the beast and his rival, Gaston, and the scene in which the beast turns into a prince are beyond description.
A budget of 1.2 billion budget ($10 million) is planned for the Seoul production, according to Mr. Seol. “We expect that 97 percent of the whole audience will be adults,” he said. It remains to be seen whether “Beauty and the Beast” can keep the local musical boom going strong after “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats” and “Mamma Mia.”
The musical opens in Seoul in August at LG Arts Center. Ticket sales start Thursday. For more information, call (02) 2005-0114.

by Baik Sung-ho
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