Late singer’s music revived

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Late singer’s music revived

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Kim Woo-taek, 49, has stepped into the musical industry with a large-scale creative musical “December.” The musical, which features songs written by the late singer-songwriter Kim Kwang-seok, will be staged starting Monday at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. By Jeon Ho-seong

This year, the musical industry in Korea has been especially attracted to songs written by the late singer-songwriter Kim Kwang-seok (1964-96). In March, the small-scale musical “Where the Wind Blows” started the trend of using Kim’s songs in musicals. It was followed by “The Days,” which swept numerous awards in April and is dubbed the “legend of creative musicals.” Before it was made, creative musicals - which refer to musicals made in Korea from scratch - were no match for big-named licensed musicals.

Korean audiences never seem to get tired of Kim’s songs. Another creative musical, “December,” is set to be staged beginning Monday and stars Junsu from the boy group JYJ, and tickets for the show are selling out quickly.

According to its organizers, “December” differentiates itself from the two earlier musicals that used Kim’s songs by using all of Kim’s music, including unreleased songs from the folk-rock singer, who died at the age of 32.

The man who decided to weave Kim’s songs into one musical is Kim Woo-taek, often referred to as “Midas in film distribution and investment.” Kim is the CEO of the small film distribution and investment company NEW, which was established in 2008. Before the creation of NEW, the industry was dominated by three conglomerates: CJ, Lotte and Showbox. Last year’s hit movies - including “Unbowed,” “All About My Wife,” “Pieta” and “The Grand Heist” - were all distributed by NEW. This year’s films, such as “Miracle in Cell No. 7,” “New World,” “Cold Eyes” and “Hide and Seek,” are also Korean films that cost less than 5 billion won ($4.75 million) to produce. However, they have competed shoulder to shoulder with 10 billion won blockbusters from the conglomerates.

When people hear that Kim Woo-taek is behind the accomplishments of NEW, they are not surprised. Kim is known as the Korean version of Harvey Weinstein. In 2000, he took the lead in opening the multiplex theater Megabox in Korea and he became the CEO of Showbox in 2003, creating box-office hits from such films as “Brotherhood,” “Marathon,” “Welcome to Dongmakgol” and “The Host.” Since becoming the CEO of NEW in 2010, Kim has been actively and aggressively leading the new renaissance of Korean film.

So why is this Midas of film placing his hands on a musical?

On Nov. 1 at 8 p.m., the first round of tickets were put on sale. Instantly, about 120,000 people logged onto the server and 50,000 tickets were sold out in seconds.

“The musical ‘December’ started like a destiny,” said Kim.

Last year, Kim acquired a music company that had been distributing Kim Kwang-seok’s songs. Suddenly, there was a flash of light in Kim’s head, who calls himself a longtime fan of the legendary singer as well as the performing arts, to make a “Kim Kwang-seok musical.”

“If Kim Kwang-seok was alive, he would be the same age as me now,” said Kim. “And people in my age group would know him. We grew up with his music. It’s our youth.”

Kim said his employees all agreed on producing a musical that would focus on Kim Kwang-seok’s songs.

“I wasn’t aiming to go along the current trends of reviving the retro styles of the ’90s in the country, which started with the movie ‘Architecture 101’ last year,” said Kim. “But luckily, with the surge of television dramas and movies focusing on ’90s nostalgia, the musical was very timely.”

That’s when Kim found out that there were two more musicals that would use Kim Kwang-seok’s songs, but he didn’t give up. Unlike those two musicals, Kim was confident that “December” will differentiate itself by featuring all of Kim Kwang-seok’s songs without any alterations.

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Top: The late Kim Kwang-seok (1964-96) Above: Director Jang Jin, center, poses for a photo at a rehearsal room with JYJ’s Junsu, left, and musical actor Park Gun-hyung. Provided by NEW

“I’ve heard Kim Kwang-seok’s songs countless times during my school years and as a new member of this society after graduating from college. I believe people in my age group will have at least a couple of songs of his as their favorites,” said Kim. “But while I was working to produce the musical, some of the songs that I neglected back then came to me totally differently. Back then, I didn’t really know the song ‘A Story of an Old Couple.’ But when I listen to it now, it’s such a knockout. Sometimes, when I’m listening to the song alone, tears flow down my face. Even the actors, when they perform that part during rehearsals, they all shed tears. Kim Kwang-seok’s music has such a wide spectrum that anyone who listens to his songs may think it’s a story about themselves.”

To come up with a strong enough drama to feature these “valuable songs,” Kim, who doesn’t have any experience in making musicals, hired director Jang Jin. Kim says he’s such a big fan of Jang’s style of storytelling and his favorite film is “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” one of Jang’s many works.

“I wanted to have very strong storytelling for this musical, and the only person who came up in my head was director Jang,” said Kim. “At first, I was only going to ask him to write a screenplay but while I was talking to him about the many issues in the country’s musical industry, I found out that he and I were on the same page. It’s a difficult enough market for us to jump into at this time as first-timers, so I wanted to feel free and just do it our way instead of being tied down by customs. So I asked him to direct the musical as well.”

For the first time in Korea, “December” will show its audience new technologies on stage, such as “eyeliner hologram” and “media facade.” These techniques will allow the late Kim Kwang-seok, who would be turning 50 in January, to be on stage.

“After a deep consideration on how to communicate with the audience, I thought one was to stimulate people’s nostalgia of Kim Kwang-seok as much as possible by showing his originality and, at the same time, to be appealing to the audience of the 21st century,” said Kim. “As his birthday is on the 22nd of January while the anniversary of his death is on the 6th, I thought it would be meaningful to bring him up on the stage.”

Although it’s Kim’s first plunge into the musical industry, which has been saturated for many years, Kim chose to go with a creative musical - which have been known to have higher risks - rather than a licensed one.

“Since it’s my first try, I don’t know anything about musicals,” said Kim. “But I’ve started it, so I’ll have to see it to its end. I left a large conglomerate and came to a smaller company in hopes of making a small but strong media company. No matter what the genre, I never start for fun and stop in the middle. When I start things, I start with a sense of calling in that field. In many ways, I will make efforts to be of help to the whole musical industry in Korea.”

Kim was able to rent the Grand Theater of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul, the largest theater in the capital, and even cast Junsu, who’s known to draw a large audience in the musical industry.

“Some pointed fingers at me for playing foul. They think staging a 5 billion won musical at the end of the year, which is the peak season for theaters, by hiring a star director and an idol singer is a sure win, and probably thought that’s not a good entrance for a newcomer,” said Kim.

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Posters of some of the Korean films that NEW invested in and distributed this year. “The Attorney,” second from right, is the latest film from the company and will be released Dec. 19. Provided by NEW

“But to be qualified to achieve all that, I had to pass so many hurdles. It was difficult even for me to rent a venue, so I knocked on the door of the largest theater in Seoul. People say creative musicals start small, but I believe investment should be made according to its piece of work.

“In order to allow more people hear Kim Kwang-seok’s songs through a musical, I had to have appropriate hardware. By having a heart-to-heart talk with the officials at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, there was a way. Moreover, when I said I wanted to cast Junsu, people told me that it’ll be difficult. But I trusted the musical to be my destiny and asked him with my sincere heart over a drink of soju, and he accepted the offer right away. Junsu also has passion toward creative musicals and a strong desire to sing Kim Kwang-seok’s songs.”

NEW started off in 2008 by distributing the foreign film “Twilight” and in 2010 it started to advance with a Korean film “Hello Ghost,” attracting more than 3 million viewers. Over the three years, it distributed 10 more Korean films that all became box-office hits.

“Profit or market share aren’t important,” said Kim, adding that cherishing every work that gets distributed through NEW is part of the company’s culture.

According to Kim, the fatal weakness of having no theater infrastructure for NEW acted as a stimulus for them to focus on distribution and marketing instead. Moreover, having no choice but to work with rookie directors as a small company with lack of capital and awareness allowed NEW to discover diverse films.

“No one knows the success or failure of a certain work,” said Kim. “But I believe the people in the organization have to know about the work to have the power. I hold screenplay meetings with all employees to share about the work during the process of making it, rather than informing them of the result. It’ll be slower, but I believe such process is more important. If I dogmatically carry things out and make decisions, I don’t think my organization will be as powerful.

“For this musical, every member of the organization participated in the process, so even the employees at the film department rolled up their sleeves to help out. Such ‘culture’ will continue to be NEW’s supporting force.”

BY YOO JOO-HYUN [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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