Latest musicals rely on international narratives

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Latest musicals rely on international narratives


From left, the musicals “Frankenstein,” “Turandot” and “Mata Hari” are attracting attention from theatergoers this year by using topics already familiar to international audiences. [CHUNGMU ART HALL, MUSICAL COMPANY SUNGWOO, EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

“Turandot,” “Mata Hari,” “Frankenstein” and “Salieri” are all musicals that have been or will be performed in Korea this year. While they might sound as if they have been imported from Broadway, all are independently staged Korean productions.

Korean musicals nowadays are trying to expand their audiences by exploring stories that have long been familiar to international theatergoers. Considering that earlier generations of mega-scale Korean musicals focused almost exclusively on historical events in Korea - “The Last Empress” is about Queen Myeongseong (1851-95), the last queen of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), who was murdered by Japanese assassins, and “Hero” explores the story of anticolonial activist An Jung-geun who fought for Korean independence in the early 1900s - these latest productions are remarkable.

Turandot takes its motif from Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same title. It was produced by the Daegu International Musical Festival (DIMF) as a global project and premiered in 2011.

“DIMF produced the musical in hopes of exporting it to the foreign musical market,” DIMF spokesperson Choi Yoon-jung said, explaining that its themes could be widely understood by an international audience.

The musical was also staged in China and was invited to the 2014 Shanghai China International Arts Festival.

In 2015, it sold 97 percent of its tickets at the ninth iteration of DIMF and was well-received by audiences. It began its run in Seoul on Feb. 17 at the D-Cube Arts Center and will close on March 13.

The musical features a love story between the cold-hearted princess Turandot; Prince Kalaf, who falls in love with her; and Ryu, the prince’s maid.

“The musical takes place in an underwater palace while the opera is set in Beijing, China,” said one of the musical’s organizers. “This is because we wanted to make the musical more approachable to international audiences.”

“Mata Hari” is about the mysterious life of a beautiful dancer at Moulin Rouge. The story is based on the real-life events of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, who was executed by French authorities after being convicted of spying for Germany during World War I. EMK Musical Company, the musical’s producer, revealed in a press release that it aims to export the musical around the world, and that buyers from 18 countries will attend the world premiere.

“‘Mata Hari’ is the company’s first self-produced musical, and this story was chosen in hopes of attracting a foreign audience,” said Gang Min-young, a spokesperson for EMK Musical Company.

“Mata Hari” opens on March 25 at Blue Square Samsung Card Hall and will close on June 12.

Other musicals, including “Frankenstein,” “Salieri” and many others, feature topics and themes familiar to both domestic and international theatergoers.

“Frankenstein,” produced by Chungmu Art Hall, is based on the novel of the same name written by Mary Shelley in 1818. It tells the story of the young scientist Frankenstein and the grotesque monster he creates. It has been positively reviewed since it premiered in 2014 and took home nine prizes at the 8th The Musical Awards that same year. It also was given the Grand Prize at the 8th Edaily Culture Awards. “Frankenstein” opened in September last year at Chungmu Art Hall and will close on March 20.

“Salieri” explores the story of Antonio Salieri, a composer more famous for his rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than his contributions to classical music. The musical premiered in 2014 but reopened on Feb. 18 at Kwanglim Arts Center. It will close on March 13.

In spite of the positive reviews, not everyone is happy about the influx of foreign-focused musicals. Some critics, such as Prof. Kang Icc-mo of Seoul Digital University, are worried that Korea is losing its distinctive content. He says Korean musical producers are choosing topics or works that have already proven to be profitable rather than developing their own stories. This latest slate of musicals can be considered “recreations,” he says, but should not be called “creative musicals.” Professor Kang attributes this to an industry-wide obsession with profitability that eclipses the desire to produce distinctive art.

“Of course, it is nice that Korean musicals that are gaining a lot of international attention,” he said. “But there should be more content that only Korean artists can make.”

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