[Outlook]A lot more than just song and danceI went the other day to Daehangno in downtown Seoul, a district full of youthful energy. I watched the home-grown musical “First Love” at the Ida Musical Theater. After the show, I savored the story in my mind once again, breathing in the fresh evening air.
The setting was a town by the ocean; the story was about memories of long-lost first loves.
The musical used as a motif the French show titled “The Fanny Trilogy” by Marcel Pagnol. It took two years for the Korean musical to be finished and as a result, the show is well-organized with a good plot. Most modern home-grown musicals tend to be musically limited, but this one was an exception.
The audience was also wonderful. For a long time, young women were the only ones who traditionally went to see musicals. That day, however, there were some women in their 50s. The 350-seat theater was perfect in size, making the actors and the audience feel close to each other. After the show ended, some middle-aged women who seemed to have been friends since high school, took photos in front of the theater, wearing smiles. It was a nice moment.
In Daehangno, there are about 80 small theaters and more than 20 musicals are currently playing there. About 10 of them were created here, in Korea. There are not many places in the world that produce this many home-grown musicals. They are Broadway in New York, the West End in London and Daehangno in Seoul. New musicals coming to Daehangno include “Dae Jang Geum” or “Jewel in the Palace” in its English title, a musical based on the popular TV series of the same title. The “Dancing Shadow” takes place during the Korean War. It took years to produce these shows.
The theater industry used to be heavily dependent on female college students who were not affluent. Now it is a different story. People in their early 30s who have jobs have joined the craze. They do not hesitate to spend 30,000 won, about 30 dollars to see a show, or even 100,000 won sometimes. The French musical “Romeo and Juliet” was a big success earlier this year in Korea even though it is no longer popular in its own country.
Koreans have a special capacity to enjoy musicals. When doing hardfarming work or performing burial and memorial services, our ancestors danced and sang their consolations. We still do the same.
We also have more income now, so we feel a stronger desire to consume culture.
Last year, the musical industry in Korea was worth 150 billion won. Since 2002, the industry has grown by an average of 38 percent per year. Goldman Sachs, the global investment bank, released a forecast that by 2050, Korea will have become the world’s second-richest country following the United States. As this rosy forecast becomes reality, the demand for performing arts will grow at a speed beyond one’s imagination.
The Korean musical industry should take this chance to leap forward; it may never come again. Armed with bravery and courage to experiment with every possibility, the producers are doing their best to create their own shows. They must do something about the reality, in which large theaters are dominated by imported musicals.
When musical companies stage foreign works, they need to pay an enormous amount of money in royalties. Even if they have a lot of success, they cannot make a big profit. Just as TV dramas and Korean pop songs are doing well in other Asian countries, we should work hard to make Korean musicals become popular ― at least in this region.
Some Korean musicals have had great success abroad. “Empress Myung-sung,” a Korean musical produced in 1995, was put on stage in New York and London. It received good reviews, attracting more than 1 million people over a 12-year period. The Korean version of “Jekyll and Hyde,” starring the Korean popular actor Cho Seung-woo, and “Winter Sonata,” a musical based on the popular TV series of the same title, played in Japan and was very successful.
Korean local musicals have just made their first step. To bolster the business, we need to have more theaters just for musical performances.
There is only one musical theater now, and we need to have four or five of them. In musical theaters, before a show is put on the stage, there is a preview period so the actors can get accustomed to the stage. A show can play for a long period, so it must be as perfect as possible. When a company rents a theater for a short period, as is done these days, shows can never become perfect enough.
In theaters with an optimum environment and the right equipment for musicals, the stage and the seats for the audience are close together. That’s the same as spectators enjoying games because they are close to the action in a soccer area.
Naturally, musical producers prefer musical theaters.
The Seoul Arts Center, the Sejong Arts Center and the Sejong Center, which now serve as stages for foreign shows, will become specialized in classical arts, such as ballet or classical music.
This is the way to realize the Renaissance of Korean musicals and to revive classical arts at the same time.
*The writer is the senior editor of the sports and culture desk of the JoongAng Ilbo
by Lee Ha-kyung