A reprise of a record-setting showIn 1895, Korea’s “last queen” was murdered by Japanese colonial forces, who considered her an obstacle to taking control of the Korean peninsula.
The epic story of love, ambition, conflict and tragedy of Myeongseong Hwanghu, or Queen Min, was made into a musical to mark the centennial of her death. Now, performances commemorating the 10th anniversary of “The Last Empress” will begin on Feb. 4 at the Seoul Arts Center.
The longest-running musical in Korea has set many other milestones as well. It was the first locally produced musical to be presented overseas and has been profitable. It is by far the biggest musical production ever in Korea, comprising 240 actors and 130 staff, and cost 1.2 billion won ($1.1 million) to make. Since “The Last Empress” debuted in December 1995, it has attracted 770,000 viewers in 580 performances in Korea and overseas.
The show’s success and the media attention it has drawn are considered something of a miracle by the performing arts community, including its producer. “A lot of people said I would become penniless,” said Yun Ho-jin, the director of the musical and president of ACOM International Co., which produced the show. But, to the surprise of skeptics, the musical broke even on its 40th performance.
“The tragic story line and strong impressions it made, as well as the scale of the production that delivers historic awareness, were decisive factors in the success of the ‘The Last Empress,’” said Mr. Yun.
The musical’s creative team also played a major role in its success.
One of the most accomplished writers in Korea, Yi Mun-yol, the author of such works as “The Portrait of Younger Days” and “For the Emperor,” wrote “The Fox Hunt,” a play based on Queen Min’s story, at the request of Mr. Yun (“fox hunt” was the Japanese code name for the assassination plot).
Kim Kwang-lim, an acclaimed director and playwright, adapted the play as a musical. Mr. Kim was the author of “Come and See Me,” which was made into a hit movie, “Memories of Murder.”
Kim Hui-gap, one of the most prolific popular musicians in Korea, and Yang In-ja, both of whom have had many hit songs, wrote the music and lyrics. Ms. Yang has also written the lyrics for the Korean version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Australian producer and songwriter Peter Casey, who has worked closely with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was in charge of orchestration. Mr. Casey’s orchestral scores include those for “A Chorus Line,” “Les Miserables,” “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Cats.”
But the musical’s success is also due to Mr. Yun, the former artistic director of the Seoul Arts Center. As the artistic director of the Sil-Hum Company, Mr. Yun directed such critically acclaimed plays as “The Island” and “Agnes of God.”
‘The strong presence of musicals’
“When I went to London to study straight drama in 1982, I could feel the strong presence of musicals,” Mr. Yun said. “Then, I realized that the time would come for musicals to make a comeback.”
A couple of years later, while studying at New York University, he became determined to stage Korean musicals on Broadway. After returning to Korea, Mr. Yoon founded ACOM International and produced foreign musicals, such as “Guys and Dolls” (1994) and “I’m Gonna Be a Star” (1995).
After the successful debut of “The Last Empress” in 1995, he decided to undertake the difficult journey to what is arguably the musical capital of the world ― New York.
Mr. Yun had to start from scratch in preparing to bring the show there, from securing a theater to contacting public relations and advertising agents. Finally, after a grueling screening process, the musical premiered at Lincoln Center’s State Theater on Aug. 15, 1997 ― Aug. 15 is the day Korea commemorates its liberation from Japanese colonial rule.
The show ran for 12 nearly sold-out performances, generating $630,000 in ticket sales. It was the first Asian musical ever to play on Broadway. “It was close to a miracle that a local musical was shown on Broadway,” Mr. Yun said, adding that staging the show in New York was the most difficult task in his career.
Critics hailed the musical. Anita Gates of the New York Times wrote, “This production is impressive by anyone’s standards. The closing number, ‘Rise, People of Chosun,’ is spectacular. You will be impressed no matter what your background.”
Audiences also responded warmly to the show, which included Korean-American artist Yi Tae-won. After starring in the musical, Ms. Yi, a graduate of the Julliard School and Peabody Conservatory, performed in the London production of “The King and I” as Queen Thiang, and was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2000.
Given its enormous popularity, “The Last Empress” appeared again at Lincoln Center the following year, for 29 performances.
It was presented in Los Angeles at the Schubert Theater in 1998 and at the Kodak Theater in 2003. In 1999, the musical was nominated in the Best Actress, Lighting Design and Sound Design categories at the L.A. Ovation Awards.
In 2002, it premiered in London’s West End, with performances at the Apollo Hammersmith Theatre drawing standing ovations.
For the London performances, the actors sang in English. “I learned that there was a limit in drawing audiences if the musical was conducted in Korean with subtitles. I knew that in the long run, it had to be done in English.” Mr. Yun said.
Last August, it was staged at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto and earned 3 billion won in ticket sales.
During the show’s 10-year history, a number of changes were made. Songs were refined, and scenes such as shamanistic dancing were added.
The musical also added new faces to its roster, including Lee Sang-eun as Queen Min and Yoon Young-seuk as King Gojong. Mr. Yoon performed in the Korean version of “The Phantom of the Opera” as the phantom.
“This is a wonderful opportunity as an actor, and the musical is full of energy,” Mr. Yoon said. “It is very challenging to act as King Gojong because he needs to delicately express the subtleties of a character who has his opinions, but could not help being swayed by the imperial powers.”
“Queen Min might have looked fragile, but was strong inside,” Ms. Lee said. “She had to become strong to overcome the storms of life.”
Explaining the reasons behind the show’s international success, Mr. Yun said, “Scenes change fast and are very dynamic. There are scenes and sounds that are new to Westerners such as traditional rhythms and movements.”
Mr. Yun said the audiences were fascinated by the court-style dances such as “Hwaseonmu” and martial arts movements turned into dance.
He said one expatriate in Korea told him after watching a performance that he understood the country better as a result of the musical than from his two-year-long stay here.
The most important message of the musical, Mr. Yun said, is a history lesson: why the mother of the state had to be murdered.
Mr. Yun said he hopes to present the show in China and Japan. He said he tried for several years to stage the musical in the neighboring country that occupied Korea for 35 years, but so far has not succeeded.
by Limb Jae-un
The show will run from Feb. 4 to 22 at the Seoul Arts Center. English subtitles will be provided. There is no performance on Mondays, except for Feb. 21; there are two shows on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Tickets cost 30,000 won ($28.50) to 110,000 won. For information, call 1588-7890 or go to www.thelastempress.com