American musical veteran taps Korea’s talent pool

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American musical veteran taps Korea’s talent pool

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Artistic Director Robert Johanson’s “Rebecca,” his fifth musical in Korea, kicked off at the LG Arts Center on Saturday. By Park Sang-moon


For Korea’s musical actors, who often get “shoved away from the limelight” by celebrities and pop stars dabbling in the genre, the arrival of Robert Johanson on the peninsula was big news. For 20 years, Johanson, 61, served as artistic director at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, the biggest regional theater in America.

Since coming to Korea in 2007 to stage the Czech musical “Hamlet,” he says he’s always been on the “lookout for talent” so he can give overlooked people the opportunity to shine.

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Top: The “I am an American woman” scene from the Korean production of “Rebecca.” Above: “Rudolf,” Robert Johanson’s fourth musical production in Korea, will wrap up its two-month run on Jan. 27 at the Chungmu Arts Center. Provided by EMK

“In the mind-set of Korea, it’s especially hard for an ensemble person to move up to a starring position because when you’re in the ensemble for too long, it’s not easy for Korean producers to picture that actor or actress in another position. It’s easier in America to make that kind of transition,” said Johanson.

While producing “Rudolf,” he gave the leading role to Park Eun-tae, who started off as a member of the ensemble in “Hamlet.”

“When I saw him playing the smaller role in ‘Hamlet,’ I told the Korean production company that they have to give him a bigger role because he’s so talented. They were surprised because they always pictured him as just an ensemble boy. It’s hard for them to see the actors in different positions from what they’re used to. But as a producer, you have to be able to see that and always search for talent and study how you can groom them,” said Johanson.

“I’ve done that for so many people in America. For example, my student was Anne Hathaway. She was with me for four years and I gave her her first roles and gave her good roles in the theater because she’s so talented. And she turned out pretty well. America is a little more supportive of discovering somebody. They like that. Anne went right up from the bottom and while doing theater, she got cast for her first movie, the ‘Princess Diaries.’?”

After staging “Hamlet,” Johanson grew attracted to the Korean musical world, going on to direct “Monte Cristo,” “Elisabeth” and “Rudolf” here. His new production of “Rebecca” kicked off a three-month run at the LG Arts Center on Saturday.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with him at the Chungmu Art Center earlier this month.

Q. You’ve been the artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse, the biggest regional theater in America, for 20 years. Why did you suddenly choose Korea, a country without a very long history in musical theater?

A. I never even knew anything about Korea until “Hamlet” brought me here in 2007. When the organizer, EMK Production saw “Hamlet” in Prague, they wanted to bring it to Seoul. So when I sat down with Janek Ledecky, who wrote the musical “Hamlet,” he asked me if I wanted to go. So I said, “Sure, let’s go.” Working with the Paper Mill Playhouse for 20 years was a great experience. But I really wanted to have a little more freedom. I wanted to have more time for myself as well as the pursuit of other interesting projects. So Korea came along just at the right time. It was perfect because it really gave me a chance to do something different.

What’s do you like about directing musicals in Korea?

I didn’t know very much about Korea. I think it’s that last 10 or 12 years that Korea has become more international in people’s consciousness through everything from the Olympics to “Gangnam Style.” When I came here for “Hamlet,” I was just blown away by the talent here. The actors and singers are really world-class. They’re as good as anybody, anywhere. I know now that the musical scene is growing and even the audiences are growing very quickly as well.

Often in Broadway or in London theaters, there’s a little bit of jaded quality. People are snobbish about things and they’re not as accepting of certain things. They have their own idea of how the shows run because the shows have been going on for so long in those places. But in Korea, I feel like people are more open-minded. They’re not as critical because they haven’t seen 40 more of those beforehand. I just had a really great time; every time I was here doing the shows with really the best talent that’s in Korea and seeing how the audience responded to all of the shows that I’ve done.

Plus, the projects that I’m doing here, except for “Hamlet,” they’re all new to me and obviously they’re new to Korea as well. I’ve done over 250 productions in my life and I don’t like to repeat myself. So having the new challenges here is what the opportunity has provided for me. Also I get to do many spectacular productions here with huge orchestras, big sets and costumes. It’s everywhere but right now in America and in Europe, the financial crisis makes the theaters become more conservative. They don’t take as many risks. On the other hand, the production company that I’m working with in Korea, they are willing to take risks. For example, the company looks at large shows like “Elisabeth” as a long term investment. “Elisabeth” was a really well-received show but I doubt that all of its investments got paid back in the first run. But the company figures it’s going to come back and come back and they’ll begin to make money from it. So the system allows for them to take little bit of a chance at first as long as the show turns out well.

You must have difficulties working as a musical director for Korean-language musicals.

In between Korean projects, I go back to America and do some shows there too. Sometimes, I just need to work in English. I’m so lucky that I have really good translators here in Korea. They’re very good at conveying the nuances that I want. But it’s nice to not have the middleman and to be able to just get right to it. So that part is good. I think the language barrier is the greatest frustration of working here. I think I’m just too old to work with a new language. And it’s a difficult language to learn. At first, I didn’t understand the science of it because it’s so different from English. If I was working in Europe, since the languages there are more related to English, it’s easier for me to work. I can understand and know how to construct sentences. Now I can understand how the sentence structure of Korean works. But still, transferring English lyrics or German lyrics to Korean is really tricky as they have different grammar structures to Korean. For instance, with “Rebecca,” there are key songs that are written to have the last word of the sentence be Rebecca or the last word of the sentence be Manderley, which is the house they sing about all the time. But because of the way we have to construct things in Korean, it’s hard always to make that work out. So it’s a real jigsaw puzzle, learning how to best suit the lyrics to Korean words in the music.

As the shows are in Korean, non-Koreans who live here may not be interested in going. What do you think about that, as a foreigner not only working in but watching Korean musicals?

There’s so much music in musicals these days. There isn’t so much dialogue that’s not musicalized. So it’s similar to going to see operas. Of course a directors job is - my job is - to make sure the story comes through, like if you’re watching a ballet. You know the story even though nobody is telling you words. You’re told about the story by the staging. Even though people don’t get all the words, they can get the meaning and have the same emotional experience because the music carries them away. I think English-speaking people can have the same experience as the Koreans watching licensed musicals in English. I would say that 75 percent of the musicals can be understood by foreign audiences as you’re carried away by music and you can get the gist of the song pretty quickly.

You’ve mentioned earlier that there’s a lot of musical talent in Korea. Why do you think that is?

The work ethic for Korean actors, and I think the Korean people in general, is unbelievable. We don’t make them work every day for 12 hours but sometimes we have to. And when we do, they never seem to get tired. They’re tired but they don’t let it show. Moreover, they’re very supportive of each other. They want to make the feeling of a family right away and watch out for each other. The leading actors and actresses are very concerned about the ensemble and the ensemble is very supportive of the stars. It’s really beautiful.

I think in America, in Broadway especially, it’s more competitive. I’m not saying that they don’t work together well but it’s not quite the same. It’s not as cohesive. I think for Koreans, it’s very important that the whole experience becomes a really good experience, not just the outcome of the show for the audience, but the actual experience of working together. Whenever I pop in to see the show, I see everybody giving a hundred percent. I mean, often you can see some actors being lazy one evening or the next, but I’ve never seen that in my entire time in Korea. Everybody is very dedicated yet every time they go out there every night - which is hard when you’re doing a show for four months at a time or six months - they give 100 percent.

Why do you cast Ock Joo-hyun in so many of your shows in Korea?

Well, she’s really phenomenal. She has an amazing singing voice. There’s no question. The flexibility and the range of her singing voice are remarkable. She adapts it to the various roles she plays. So many Western-style musicals have challenging women’s parts now. They’re complicated just to have the right kind of voice to sing them, but Ock can do that. In addition to that, she’s really developed as a very powerful actress. When she decided to make the transition from pop music and more into theater, she really worked very hard to build the skills that she hadn’t had much experience with. And now, her skills are superior even to most leading ladies that I can name in America and Europe. She’s also beautiful and has great imagination. She’s not trying to just take standard choices. She wants to make interesting choices. She works very hard with the company and with making the chemistry between her and her leading man, which is also very important. There are a number of great talents in my head and Ock is one of them, I don’t have musical actresses who can outshine such great talents in Korea, not even on Broadway. I think Ock is in her prime time right at this moment. She’s at a perfect place now where she could play a little younger or little older or either way because she’s in the good age where you can do that. For example, her character in “Rudolf” is very young but her character in “Rebecca” is much older. She’s like a chameleon.

You’ve done Korean productions of many musicals including “Hamlet,” “Monte Cristo,” “Elisabeth,” “Rudolf,” and now “Rebecca.” Do you make many alterations from the originals?

The Korean production of this “Rudolf” is very different from earlier productions in other countries. We work with the authors not only to make it better for the Korean audience but just to make “Rudolf” even better and more powerful.

But when we’re doing shows that are historical, I don’t want to be bogged down in the history part. I don’t think Korean audiences really want that. The historical part needs to be there but it’s got to be the background for a love story or the main human drama that anybody can relate to universally. But then, when you know that it actually has happened in the past, for instance like “Elisabeth” and “Rudolf,” you have to keep the human element of it always in the front in order to allow people get involved in the human characters.

For example, in “Rudolf,” everybody felt nervous because the love story is adulterous. He’s in love with a young girl but he had a disastrous marriage. He had an arranged marriage and he met the woman once before he married her. His wife was very cold. He tried to make it work out with his wife for many years, but fails and then he meets this girl, who is kind of his soul mate. She understood him. Portraying this, we didn’t want to push Korean women away because of an adulterous relationship. We had to rework how to portray this true story so that it can be acceptable to a Korean audience. So we emphasized Rudolf’s situation to bring up the sympathy from the audience.


By Yim Seung-hye [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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