Korean show aims for world stageKorean musicals can do very well in the domestic market and moderately well abroad, but few have been made from the start with an international audience in mind.
Seensee Musical Company, one of the biggest musical production companies in Korea and the domestic producer of such shows as “Mamma Mia!” and “Aida,” is doing just that. The company is at work on a new production, “Dancing Shadows,” a musical based on the Korean play “Sanbul (Forest Fire)” written by the playwright Cha Bum-suk, who passed away in June.
But Seensee is taking a new path for a Korean producer trying to make a globally competitive musical show, by enlisting internationally-recognized artists and writers. It has recruited the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, who wrote “Death and the Maiden,” the Scottish composer Eric Woolfson, who did “Gaudi” and “Gambler” and just finished “Poe,” and the British producer Paul Garrington, who did “Mamma Mia!” and “Whistle Down the Wind.”
“[Seensee] asked them to make the musical universal, taking the Korean color and history out of the original play while adding flavors that people from other nations could respond to,” said Choi Seung-hee, a spokeswoman for the company. What matters, she said, is that the play succeeds internationally and not that its creators were Korean.
“Sanbul” is about a village in the Sobaek Mountains where only women are left ― all the men have died or been sent to fight in the Korean War. A young widow hides a man who has run away from the North Korean military, and falls in love with him, but her friend finds out and also falls in love with the man. The plot of “Dancing Shadows” is similar to the play, but with a more uplifting ending. It also has no Korean elements ― everything from the names of the characters, the village and even the war has been changed. The musical unfolds like a fairy tale, in which the village of Constanza is deprived of men due to a war between the armies of the Moon and the Sun.
“The story is about people hurting each other without wanting to,” Mr. Dorfman said at the showcase, held at the Seoul Arts Center on July 3. “When I was a child, I loved music and trees, and hated war. The show is a combination of my dream and nightmares.
“It’s a fairytale reality. There is nobody entirely good and bad,” he added.
“I’m so pleased to see that a Korean musical is ready to jump the fence,” said Sung Ki-youn, who plays the roles of captain and narrator in the musical. He has appeared only in licensed musicals, saying that most Korean creative productions are rapidly made and not well prepared.
Seensee certainly splurged on preparation. The process of adapting “Sanbul” to a musical started in 1999, when Seensee asked Mr. Woolfson to compose music for the production. Looking for inspiration, Mr. Woolfson visited the Demilitarized Zone and studied Korean traditional music. With Mr. Dorfman coming on board in 2004, the company held its first workshop in September last year, in London and in English. It finally persuaded Mr. Garrington to join the troupe in February this year, and held a series of auditions for the show; it is planning to hold additional ones for ensembles. Seensee is planning to put the musical on stage in July next year at the Seoul Arts Center.
Mr. Dorfman met Mr. Cha in 2004 in Japan; he recalled the playwright as having a “great sense of humor,” and a “gentle intelligence.” He added that he still feels Mr. Cha’s presence in some of the songs, particularly in the “chacha chacha chacha” sound of the trees.
by Park Sung-ha