Korea has a new theater, but Japan steals the show
But there’s something people don’t like about those producers: They’re not Korean.
The producers are Japanese. Think a bit about Korea’s relations with Japan, and try to imagine how much Korean musical companies have looked forward to having their own theater, and it won’t be hard to imagine how Charlotte, which is owned by Lotte, stirred up a great deal of controversy by deciding to host a Japanese production in Korea.
Two years ago, when Shiki Theatre Company, the Japanese production company now running “The Lion King,” was planning to enter Korea, strong opposition by Korean producers blocked Shiki from entering the market. At the time, Korean producers were motivated by little more than anti-Japanese sentiment; the situation now is a bit different.
“We’re not opposing Shiki’s entrance to Korea,” the Korea Association of Performing Arts Producers wrote in a recent press release. One reason is that the Korean production of “Jekyll & Hyde” recently had a successful run in Japan, and cultural exchange is seen by both sides as spurring growth in the industry.
The association said, however, that they oppose the idea of having the first Korean musical theater give a Japanese production an open run.
“We worked a lot to have a musical theater,” said Nam Ki-woong, an association member. “We consulted with Lotte when it built Charlotte, we gave it ideas on how to run the theater when it needed, but now it gives those benefits to a Japanese company.”
Charlotte’s executives, however, say they have little choice. “We wanted to hold a huge musical that hasn’t run in Korea yet for the opening show,” said Kim Jung-hyun, an executive at the theater. Only two musicals fit the bill: “Miss Saigon,” and “The Lion King,” he added, and “Miss Saigon” was already scheduled by CMI Korea to be held in Korea.
“Disney said its schedule was already completely booked, so they couldn’t help us set up the production in Korea in time to launch the theater, and recommended that we use Shiki’s production,” Mr. Kim explained.
“If we knew that Lotte had already made up its mind to hold Shiki’s ‘The Lion King,’ we wouldn’t have given it our ideas,” said Choi Seung-hee, spokeswoman for Seensee Musical Company. The company submitted proposals for shows and theater-promotion events, she said, but Lotte never responded.
Despite the opposition, Shiki says it’s still eager to perform in Korea.
“We’re returning what we culturally received from Korea for thousands of years,” said Keita Asari, the president of Shiki Theatre Company, at a press conference held at Jamsil Lotte Hotel on June 7. He explained that throughout history, Japan had received advanced culture through Korea.
“If we profit from the Seoul performance, we won’t take any of the profits back to Japan, but will reinvest the money in Korea, by establishing an institute to foster actors,” Mr. Asari said.
He argued that the Japanese production is a good fit for the theater for three reasons: That it uses Korean actors, that the Japanese company presents an alternative to Korea’s audition system and that it provides lower ticket prices.
“I want to give Shiki’s Korean actors a chance to impress Korean audiences in the Korean language,” Mr. Asari said. There are about 60 Korean actors in the company; about 20 of them have performed in “The Lion King.”
He also said that Korean companies are too dependent on the “star system,” pushing big names at the expense of talented but unknown actors.
Mr. Asari also argued that lower ticket prices would contribute to the growth of the industry. The most expensive seat for “The Lion King” costs 90,000 won ($94), about 30 percent less than the priciest seats for Korean-produced shows. The production costs amount to 21.5 billion won, but the company is not expecting to lose money in its one-year run, and do quite well if the show lasts three years.
Mr. Nam, however, is unmoved by the three arguments. “First of all, we do have auditions [in Korea]. And while he says Shiki wants to introduce a ‘fair audition system’ in Korea, and that he also wants to give his Korean actors the chance have a show in Korea. That’s very contradictory,” Mr. Nam said.
Jang Hyuk-jean, general manager at the Seoul Office of the Shiki Theater Company, said the cast would include both Korean actors selected through auditions and Koreans already working with Shiki. The latter, however, won’t have to participate in the Korean auditions, Mr. Jang said. “The Lion King,” has a cast of 37.
“It’s great for the audience that they can watch such a huge piece for a low price,” said Ms. Choi of Seensee, “but I’m afraid the audience will think that the higher prices they had paid were inflated, which isn’t true. I admit that ticket prices [here] are higher than they are on Broadway or the West End, but Korean audiences should consider that we don’t have the right infrastructure, such as musical theaters, and enough demands, even though the market is growing.”
“The prices weren’t set too high, because they were set based on the expectation that three quarters of the seats would sell,” she added.
Ms. Choi said that having a theater designed specifically for musicals ― such as Charlotte ― makes it easy to lower ticket prices. But because “The Lion King” is offering such cheap ticket prices, “we will have to adopt a retrenchment policy.”
Seensee knows the field well: It produced the musical “AIDA,” which ran for eight months, making it Korea’s longest-running musical. The production cost 13 billion won but pulled even in six months. At that time, the most expensive ticket cost 120,000 won. Asked why the ticket prices were over 100,000 won even though it was scheduled for a long run, Ms. Choi said that it was the first time a Korean production had had a long run, and that “AIDA” was not well-known or well-liked by Korean audiences, making it a high-risk production.
But musical goers seem to be eagerly anticipating cheap seats to “The Lion King.”
“Overcompetition among production companies caused royalty fees to shoot up, which resulted in higher ticket prices,” said Lee Jung-yeon, the operator of the musical show club, “Oh My Musical.” “We don’t want to pay those prices anymore. If Korean producers want to protect themselves from what they call a ‘cultural invasion,’ they should take this as an opportunity to raise their competitiveness. Crisis means opportunity.”
A space for musicals, but not for legs
Lotte World invested 45 billion won ($47 million) in the facility, which has 1,227 seats over two floors. The VIP seats are from line two to four on the second floor (line one is in front of a safety bar, which can block the view). “We considered the sight from each seat to be the most important thing when building the theater,” said Kim Seung-hwan, managing director of Lotte. The inclination of the second floor is quite steep, to shorten the distance from the stage: The seats on the last line of the second floor are 21 meters (69 feet) from the stage. Even still, the sight from the seats near the corners or in the rear are limited, both on the first and second floor. Also, there is less legroom between seats than in other Korean performing art theaters, although Mr. Kim said there is more than in the New Amsterdam theater, where “The Lion King” is performed on Broadway.
Charlotte has five large dressing rooms that can house 15 persons each and three dressing rooms that can house five persons each. It also has two rooms for staff, and a property room, a hair and makeup room, a drying room and a stage props room.
As of June 7 it was still setting up its speakers and lights, so the sound system is still unchecked.
by Park Sung-ha