Monopoly of the few in the Korean musical theater scene
Lady of the hour Ock Joo-hyun maintained professionalism until the very end of Saturday’s matinee show of “Mata Hari” at Charlotte Theater in Songpa District, southern Seoul.
Without an ounce of hesitation, the 42-year-old actor glided to center stage, lifted her bejeweled sleeves then gracefully curtsied in front of hundreds of people — just days after withdrawing her lawsuit against a fellow actor and issuing a public apology for “causing a fiasco” in the musical industry.
The controversy ignited on June 14 when Ock was accused of interfering in the casting process of the upcoming Korean production of the Viennese musical “Elisabeth,” so as to have her close friend and fellow actor Lee Ji-hye cast as the lead role with Ock in the show.
Though the rumor had first circulated among a few musical fans, it was largely brought attention by musical actor Kim Ho-young who posted a phrase on Instagram Stories insinuating that Ock is controlling the current musical industry scene.
Ock reacted by threatening to sue Kim and any others spreading such rumors. The production house of “Elisabeth,” EMK Musical Company, also let out a statement denying her involvement in the casting process.
But the flak against the actor rapidly conflagrated. Dozens of people in the musical industry, including Korea’s first-generation musical actors Kolleen Park, Choi Jung-won and Nam Kyung-joo, took to social media to denounce the rumored malpractices and admitted that such injustices do exist in the industry — though they did not directly point fingers at Ock. Some actors, however, did unfollow Ock on Instagram.
The casting controversy was followed by an additional allegation of a person claiming to have worked with the actor as a staff member, who recalled instances of the actor on a power trip 10 years ago.
Ock was quickly left ostracized by her colleagues in her own field.
There are not infrequent instances of K-pop stars like Solar of girl group Mamamoo, television actors like Ji Chang-wook and movie stars like Hwang Jung-min who dip their toes in live theater now and then. There are also popular born-and-bred musical actors like Yuria and Jeon Dong-seok.
But when Korea talks about star casts in the musical theater world, it is really referring to just five individuals: Ock, Cho Seung-woo, Park Hyo-shin, Hong Kwang-ho and Kim Jun-su. Ock is the only female of the five.
The five are considered to be the industry’s top actors, who are reportedly paid somewhere between 30 million won ($23,000) to 50 million won per performance. As one actor stars in an average of 35 performances for one full run of a production, it can be estimated that they make about 1.1 billion won to 1.8 billion won after each show. These guarantees are similar to what top movie stars like Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun reportedly receive before they shoot a film in Korea. It is worth noting here that the film market is three times the size of the local musical market.
Musicals have been heavily reliant on star power mainly because they are a crucial factor to ensuring that a show garners investors in a flop-prone industry.
“A star-studded cast is essential because it gets shows funded,” said Yoo Han-na, a musical producer and composer. “Without investors, production companies do not have enough money to put up shows. So they need investors, and the number one thing that investors look at when reviewing potential shows is the cast.
“To them, actors like Ock Joo-hyun and Cho Seung-woo mean a full house every night.”
Equally important is the fact that star casting draws new audiences who have the potential to become real fans of musicals. Yoo likened the theater’s dependence on stars to the “growing pains” of a relatively nascent industry in Korea.
“Local musicals aren’t yet a part of the popular culture like K-pop because it is only a couple decades old, while West End and Broadway have been around for some 150 years,” she said. “Korea is still trying to make the genre more public.”
According to the local ticketing platform Interpark’s research, only 12.6 percent of 1.39 million people who consumed live theater last year were regular theatergoers who watched the same show more than once.
But these regular goers accounted for a significant proportion of the ticket sales because 57 percent viewed the same show twice, 17.3 percent three times, 8.6 percent six to 10 times, 8.4 percent four times and 4.8 percent viewed shows five times. Audiences who watched more than 11 times accounted for 3.7 percent.
“It’s a strong fan base of true musical enthusiasts,” Yoo said.
Interpark’s PR manager Nam Chang-im said that according to his company’s research, this avid group of fans is growing.
“The number of viewers who watched a show multiple times doubled from 50,000 people in 2020 to 100,000 people in 2021 which indicates the growth of devoted musical fans,” said Nam.
As for Ock, even amid the feverish standing ovation after her performance, she kept a cool expression until the curtains completely closed.
Ock started out as an ugly duckling in the entertainment industry as the least popular member of the first-generation K-pop girl group Fin.K.L. Though it took her some time to prove her talent in the field, she turned into a full-fledged swan in musical theater. Having spent the past 24 years under close public scrutiny, she knows the drill all too well: Put on a smile and act as if nothing has happened.
The next day, on June 26, Ock attended an introductory meeting with the entire cast and crew of “Elisabeth” at Gangnam District, southern Seoul. To the reporters waiting for her, Ock gave a friendly wave.
“I am happy to be here and see everyone,” she told them, adding, “It’s rainy out there, so be careful!”
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]