A 10-year ride on the ‘Subway’It’s been a record-setting decade for the Korean rock musical “Subway Line Number 1.” First staged in the spring of 1994, it’s now the longest-running theatrical production in Korea. It has been seen by 490,000 people, been staged in Japan, Germany and China, been performed more than 2,000 times and earned 5.7 billion won ($4.8 million) in local box office receipts.
Those figures might not be so staggering in, say, the Korean movie industry. But in a country where “theater” has always meant “starving artist,” the success of “Subway Line Number 1” has been a ray of hope for stage actors in Daehangno, a center of non-mainstream theatrical productions, where “Subway” has been setting its records in a theater that seats fewer than 200.
“Subway” is a remake of the German musical “Linie 1” by Volker Ludwig. The Korean version depicts a rough journey through Seoul taken by a naive woman named Seon-nyeo (which means “fairy” in Korean).
Seon-nyeo has left her village in China to find a Korean man she’d fallen in love with while guiding a tour of Mount Baekdu. She arrives in Seoul with his photograph, hoping she’ll meet someone on the subway who can help her find him. But instead, she gets a bitter taste of city life. She learns that 588 Cheongnyangri, the address he gave her, is a house of ill repute. She eventually finds him, only to discover that he’s a gigolo who scams older women out of their money.
In her journey on the Seoul subway, Seon-nyeo runs into people who have problems of their own: a heroin-addicted prostitute, a street vendor, a psychic missionary, a fraudulent student activist, a foreign factory worker who’s lost three fingers and some wealthy widows of Gangnam who complain that Seoul’s subways are too dirty for their taste.
The current version of “Subway” is set just after the foreign exchange crisis of 1997-98, when the country’s sudden financial breakdown widened gaps between classes, leaving many average citizens out of work and pushing them to the edges of life. The play is a rough sketch of that state of confusion, as expressed in a song by a young jobless man who calls Seoul a “kingdom of speculators, a heaven for low-lifes, a home for prostitutes and a paradise for foreigners.” The story highlights the conflicts of capitalism and the effects that rapid economic change have had on Seoul’s working class.
But just as the subway becomes a metaphor for Korean society, Seoul can be seen as representing a modern city in any capitalist country. In the German original, “Linie 1,” set in Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young girl leaves her home in West Berlin to find her rocker boyfriend in Kreuzberg. This crumbling immigrant neighborhood becomes, in the Korean version, Cheongnyangri, a local center of homelessness and prostitution.
While it might be pure coincidence, since it came from the title of the German original, there is an extra layer of meaning in the setting of the Korean version on Seoul’s subway line No. 1.
Line No. 1, Seoul’s oldest subway line, stops at major train stations that connect to cities outside of Seoul, and is therefore used by Koreans from many diverse backgrounds.
“The idea of ‘an outsider looking in’ constantly allows us to concentrate on aspects of Seoul that we might otherwise take for granted or easily ignore in our everyday lives,” says Nam Gung-ho, an assistant producer for the show who joined the production seven years ago.
With subtitled performances in English and Japanese every week, the show is particularly accessible to foreigners. “For foreign audiences, the piece shows a picture of Korea today, as it is,” producer Kim Min-gi says. “It would be appropriate to say that ‘Subway’ allows them to get to know the real Korea.”
Much of the production’s success is owed to Mr. Kim, who rewrote the lyrics for the remake and adapted “Linie 1” to a Korean setting.
Mr. Kim is a legendary composer and folk musician whose songs became a symbol of Korean civic consciousness under the military regimes. The government banned many of his songs, which were sung at student protests. For Koreans who went to college in the 1970s, Mr. Kim’s songs were campus anthems.
Mr. Kim says “Subway Line Number 1” was meant to expose dark corners of Korean society, one reason he says it has irritated some people.
“For me, it was meaningful to talk about the other side of life,” he says. “Everyone talks about the brighter side, but the other half hardly gets a mention.
“Characters in ‘Subway Line 1’ are mostly people who have been alienated: Korean nationals in China; children of mixed blood; homeless people; foreign laborers.”
Though the songs and dances are cheerful, their descriptions of urban conflict are sharp, even bitter. Yet the hardships and dilemmas experienced by the characters are set forth in a very touching way that transcends the work’s political pessimism.
“Subway” brought some new ideas to Daehangno’s theater scene. One was the idea of a rock musical with a live band onstage; another was having actors play multiple roles, as in traditional Korean plays.
There are 11 actors in “Subway,” but each plays five or six parts, switching from prostitute to government office worker, from police officer to criminal, from rich widow to mentally handicapped man ― making a further point, perhaps, about how arbitrary and unpredictable life can be.
“Subway” began in Daehangno, and has remained there as cast members have come and gone. Since 1996, it’s been at the company’s own Hak-chon Green Theater, which seats 180. But it’s also been produced in other countries, where it’s been enthusiastically received. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun said “Subway” was full of poignant, complex depictions of city life that challenged Japanese audiences to define Tokyo’s identity. The Beijing Youth Daily called it an accurate portrayal of the lives of “others” living in the shadow of wealth.
“Subway” has even been hailed in Germany, where in a sense it began. Gerhard Fischer, a professor of German literature at the University of South Wales, praised Mr. Kim for his ability to transplant an iconic German musical to an entirely different setting without compromising the work’s essence.
A critic for Lokaler Horfunk, a German radio station, had seen a number of musicals imitating “Linie 1,” and said that only “Subway Line Number 1” had gone beyond conventional amusement.
Volker Ludwig, who wrote “Linie 1,” was so impressed by “Subway” that in 2000 he decided to waive his copyright fees, and persuaded the play’s composer, Birger Heymann, to do the same. Mr. Ludwig argued that “Subway” is an independent production, even though its basic framework is borrowed from the German musical. The decision caused some controversy in Germany’s copyright association, where there was fear that it might set an unfavorable precedent.
The same year Mr. Ludwig gave up his copyright fees, the Hak-chon company brought “Subway” to Grips Theater in Berlin ― home to “Linie 1” ― for a three-day run. In exchange, Hak-chon hosted the German company’s production of “Linie 1” the following year. In 2003, “Subway” was invited to APA Lyric Theater as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. The ride doesn’t seem to be over.
by Park Soo-mee
“Subway Line Number 1” is staged with English subtitles on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and with Japanese subtitles on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, at 4 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and at 3 and 7 p.m. on holidays. Admission is 28,000 won for adults and 22,000 won for students. To get to Hak-chon Green Theater, use Hyehwa station, line No. 4, exit 1; turn right into the alley past Eigenpost and walk 15 meters. For more information, call (02) 763-8233 or go to www.hakchon.co.kr.