Ten years later, the beat goes on
Nanta is a highly successful musical set in the kitchen of a restaurant where the chefs pound out percussive tunes using nothing but kitchen implements.
“It has been 10 years already?” said Kim, who is one Nanta’s four original cast members.
Nanta made its debut on Oct. 10, 1997 at the Hoam Art Hall in Seoul.
Today there are 29 performers divided into six groups who present three to four shows a day at two theaters in Seoul that are devoted exclusively to Nanta, one in Gangnam and the other in Jung District.
Kim is a member of the white team and performs in approximately five shows a week. These days he plays the role of the restaurant manager, which was not part of the original scenario. He wears a tuxedo while beating a large drum, set behind a huge bucket decorated with the word “pepper” in bold yellow writing. He retired from playing the role of the chef a year ago.
“I’m just too old for the role because using the chef’s knife at full power is too physically exhausting,” Kim said.
Among the original four, Kim is the only one still performing in Nanta.
Two of his fellow performers have settled in South Jeolla and are working in samulnori or traditional Korean folk music. The fourth performer and the only woman on the original team recently moved to New York and is appearing in a Broadway show.
Although he is the oldest performer currently appearing in Nanta, Lee seems to have no trouble keeping pace with the younger performers around him.
On stage his face transforms into a radiant orb and he radiates a charismatic vibe that is completely different from the gentle, shy persona he projects offstage.
Lee simply becomes a wild man when he starts beating his drums and it seems like the rhythm drives away any fatigue he might have been feeling.
For the last decade Lee has been so busy with tours and special performances that he has not even had time to date. He remains a bachelor.
Yet he has never regretted embarking on his career as an entertainer.
“I have a huge family and nobody has been really opposed to what I have done,” Kim said.
In the past, entertainers were looked down upon by society, but that has all changed. In Korea, as elsewhere, celebrity is a powerful currency.
“My brothers and sisters supported me from the beginning,” Kim said. “I think they also wanted to become performance artists so they have found some indirect satisfaction through my career.”
Kim began his theatrical career when he was still in high school.
“When I won a thespian award and showed it to my oldest brother, for the first time in my life I saw him smile about something I had done,” Kim said. “I knew he is proud of what I have achieved.”
Kim recalled that even before he joined the cast of Nanta he had been in a similar show at an electronics fair in Seoul.
“I was hired to do a performance and I did this five-minute sketch by creating music with everyday objects such as a neon lamp, a refrigerator and the like, while a dancer with the MBC dance troupe moved to the music that I created,” Kim said. “I received a lot of business cards while I was doing that show and I was told that my performance was mentioned to Song Seung-whan, the chief executive of PMC Productions.”
Song, an actor himself, wanted to create a musical that was very different from the ones that were already being staged.
“He asked me if I was interested in his plan and I immediately gave him a positive answer.”
Kim said they created Nanta from nothing, just by developing a very simple idea.
“We weren’t sure what we were going to do at first but we wanted to develop something that was very different yet very Korean.”
Kim said they decided to create a version of samulnori using equipment that could easily be found in the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Then it dawned on the creators that they could use utensils that can be found in almost any kitchen to create the sounds of samulnori.
Kim remembers Nanta’s premiere like it was yesterday.
“We were all nervous because this was something new and we weren’t sure whether it would succeed,” Kim said.
But the night turned out to be more than Kim could ever have expected.
“There was this middle-aged woman who stood up and started twirling her scarf to the beat we were playing,” Kim said. “From that moment we knew what we had created really resonated with the audience and once a performance gets that kind of reaction its success is guaranteed.”
One of Kim’s most memorable experiences with the show was when his Nanta team traveled through Europe.
“We put on performances in different cities every night so we had to move around like crazy,” he said.
There were numerous occasions when Kim and his colleagues had to spend the night in a cramped vehicle or sleep in lodgings that didn’t have a bathroom, so they had to use public toilets.
“Today is different,” he said, “The performers get to sleep in buses that are customized for road trips.”
Kim said when he went on the European tour, Nanta was still relatively unknown and they had to move all the props themselves.
“We could say that we helped plow the road so it would be easier for others to follow our path,” he said.
Kim regrets that he was not a member of the Nanta team that performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999, an event that put the show on the global map.
For the duration of the festival Nanta played to sold-out houses.
“Edinburgh is extremely important for production companies around the world because it’s a marketplace where plays and musicals are sold to buyers,” Kim said. “Once the audience at Edinburgh is interested the rest of the world follows suit. I wanted to be there in Edinburgh but our touring schedule was incredibly hectic at that time and I had to work with another Nanta team.”
Nanta opened on Broadway in March 2004 and there have been 638 New York performances since then with more than 150,000 people seeing the show.
Nanta has now been seen in 205 cities in 24 countries across four continents.
Kim has never regretted becoming a performer and he certainly has no regrets that he has worked on a single show for a decade and counting.
“There have been days when I was worried about how I would get through the day’s show because I was sick with a cold or something, but there has never been a time when I regretted being a part of Nanta,” he said. “I love the stage and Nanta has been the best show to be involved in because I can interact with the audience. With more serious plays the audience are no more than spectators, and the performers usually ask the audience to keep silent and turn their cellular phones off.
“But with Nanta we get the audience to really get into the show and they really do feel the vibe. When I look at the audience getting excited, any kind ache or pain that I had before walking onto the stage just vanishes.
“I love what I do and I am addicted to it,” Kim added. “It’s hard to break away from something that has been a huge part of your life.”
Kim’s one regret is that he has not received enough credit for his loyalty.
“In this country, actors seem to believe that to be a good actor one has to play different roles and work with a wide variety of producers and directors,” Kim said. “In other parts of the world an actor who plays a single role in a single play for an extended period of time is appreciated. I wish that would become the attitude here as well.”
Kim says he studies and researches other theatrical plays, and he often goes to see serious dramas.
“Whether it’s a musical or a serious play, it’s all the same; it’s acting,” Kim said. “Whether I have improved as an actor or not will be established when I take on a different role. That doesn’t mean just because I have been performing in Nanta for 10 years that I am less of an actor than others.”
Kim then paused and looked into the distance. A smile began to play on his lips, one that was full of appreciation for the past and excitement about the future.
“I’m sure I won’t be doing Nanta for another 10 years,” he said. “Ten years from now I will probably be doing another kind of play. Ten years has been a very good run but as a performer I would like to do something different.”
Kim also recognizes his own limitations.
“I’m not sure if I will be physically fit enough to be in something like Nanta 10 years from now.”
However, from the muscles discernible beneath his tight shirt, it was obvious that he still works out and is in top physical shape.
Another 10 years? No problem.
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [email@example.com]