A growing market for ‘smaller’ musicalsAfter the curtain call on the first night of the preview of the musical “The Thing About Men,” the actors pulled up chairs on the stage and had a conversation with the audience.
“Do you really kiss each other while you’re rehearsing?” one audience member asked.
“As you could see, yes, the kisses were real,” replied Sung Ki-yoon, who played the role of Tom, a highly successful creative director at an advertising agency who is devastated to discover that his wife has been having an affair, despite the fact that he has been fooling around himself.
The short question and answer session the audience had with the five cast members was one in a recent line of efforts by the musical industry to appeal to Koreans through smaller, more intimate projects.
Korea’s Musical Market
The musical market in Korea has grown rapidly in the past few years from a few imported musicals a year to several musicals being performed simultaneously every month. With the “Phantom of the Opera” in 2001 acting as a springboard, musicals came flooding into the country; some were performed with foreign cast members while others were translated into Korean and performed by local actors.
Among the reasons for the boom are an increased interest in culture, as well as economic and financial factors, experts say.
“The expansion of the musical market is related to general economic growth in some sense,” said Han Min-ho, an official at the Culture Ministry. “People are spending more money on culture and arts, and famous musicals from foreign countries pique their interest.”
According to industry figures, the overall theater market in Korea, based on ticket sales, was about 170 billion won ($170 million) last year, with musicals amounting to 80 billion won. The musical market has been seeing an average 15 percent annual growth over the past few years, and analysts expect it to continue expanding over the near term.
Although the “Phantom of the Opera” opened up the floodgates, it also pushed aside the market for smaller musicals. Up until last year, local industry organizers focused more on these large-scale musicals due to their higher profitability. Smaller musicals faded away, and musical groups focused on performing major “blockbuster” pieces such as “Mamma Mia” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Tickets were expensive, but brand recognition of famous works drew crowds even without extensive marketing.
“It takes a lot of money to organize a well-known musical, since we have to pay royalties and so forth, but since Koreans are already familiar with the names of those musicals, there is very little risk of losing money,” said Kim Jung-won, a freelance performance planner. “People were willing to pay to see a show that was popular on Broadway or the West End.”
Returning to a Smaller Scale
Now that musicals have increasingly become a part of mass culture, however, musical groups such as the Seensee Musical Company, PMC Production and OD Musical Company are going back to producing smaller shows, focusing on selecting those that are humorous and witty, backed up by good acting and live music.
“The musical market is turning its eyes toward smaller theaters and smaller-scale pieces. It’s now just beginning to take root,” said Won Jong-won, a musical critic.
“New York’s theater scene is composed of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway; similarly, England has its West End and Fringe. Hopefully, the musical market in Korea will also diversify according to the scale and characteristics of each piece,” he said.
Musical organizers are hoping that the Daehangno area in northern Seoul, which is noted for small theaters, will eventually become Korea’s “Off-Broadway.” The neighborhood has about 40 theaters, which run plays, comedies, concerts and small-scale musicals. The back alleys are filled with cafes, live music clubs, shops and restaurants, and everywhere there are posters for ongoing performances and audition ads for aspiring actors.
Centering on this area, the musical industry hopes to increase performances of smaller musicals, to develop both the high and low ends of the market.
“The Thing About Men” is one such example. The comedy is from the creators of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” and based on the film “Men.” Dealing with such universal topics as adultery, marriage and friendship, and translated into Korean, the musical offers the audience many ways in which to relate to the performance.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” a weird love story about a nerdy guy who happens to have a bloodthirsty plant, is another musical that will be performed in Daehangno. Some aspects these musicals have in common is that they have “light” and humorous dialogue and happy endings, which contrasts with the major blockbuster musicals, which in many cases end with a tragic death.
Musical companies, however, are not sure how well they will do against their blockbuster competitors. High-end tickets to the “Phantom of the Opera,” which opened yesterday with cast members from its Broadway and West End runs, have nearly sold out for the first month. In comparison, the musical “Tick, Tick, Boom,” which ended its run here last month, received great reviews, and attracted a sizable audience, but the paid seat occupancy rate only amounted to 60 percent; the rest represented complimentary tickets.
In the case of “Nunsense A-Men!,” the seat occupancy rate for its two-month run averaged 60 percent, but the paid seat occupancy was only 45 percent. “Dalgona,” a Korean musical that will run until August, has a current paid seat occupancy rate of about 60 percent.
Still, producers feel that smaller musicals have decided advantages for the audience. “People who haven’t seen a musical before would want to see the major ones, but there are quite a lot of musical fans in Korea who know that there is a different attraction about small musicals ― proximity to the stage and a tight plot,” an OD Musical official said.
by Wohn Dong-hee, Shin Jun-bong