Next Hallyu in Musicals?
Japanese Tourists Flock to Musical Theaters
By Chung Ah-young
The Japanese yen's surge against the Korean won is driving a welcome resurgence in Japanese spending here, helping the Korean tourism industry.
The strong yen not only contributes to local tourism but also the musical industry, as tourists choose local musical performances as part of their tours to Korea.
Foreign audiences, especially Japanese visitors, have already attended non-verbal performances here. But it's a new phenomenon for Japanese viewers to see musicals in the native tongue.
It seems to be part of the hallyu effect, in which various Korean heartthrobs who have appeared in television dramas airing in Japan are taking to the stage.
Yamada Akiko, 42, has seen ``My Scary Girl,'' starring Shin Sung-rok, three times. ``I'm a big fan of Shin Sung-rok. I've seen his musicals many times,'' she told The Korea Times.
Yamada said the first time she saw Shin was in his TV drama ``Hyena'' in Japan. ``He's the most handsome man I've seen. I heard that he is a musical star and I tried to come here to see 'Hamlet' and then `Siryeonnamnyeo' (Broken Lover). I was very close to the actors in the small theater,'' she said.
Yamada said that although she began seeing the Korean musicals because of Shin, she's now a big fan of other Korean musicals as well.
``The level of Korean musicals is very high compared to that of Japan,'' she said. She's seen musicals such as ``Finding Kim Jong-wook,'' ``Thrill Me,'' ``Jekyll and Hyde'' and recently, ``Zanna, Don't.''
While seeing the local musicals, she discovered Hong Kwang-ho, who performed in ``Jekyll and Hyde.'' ``Hong Kwang-ho's dancing and singing is very good, I think. I like him, too,'' she said.
But how can she understand the Korean lyrics and songs? ``Before I saw the musical (My Scary Girl), I saw the movie and memorized the story. Also, I heard the OST music of `Thrill Me' and I know the story of `Jekyll and Hyde.' Before I see the musical, I prepare through the Internet and CDs,'' she said.
She explained that when she saw ``Hi, Franceska'' here, there were Japanese subtitles. But she said that she couldn't focus on the actors while concentrating on reading the words. ``So I don't care about the language. Musicals… I can enjoy the music,'' she said.
But she pointed out the lack of the promotion of Korean musicals. As for Japanese musicals, they advertise them three to six months in advance, she said. Information about Korean musicals is only available one month in advance. ``It's difficult to make the schedule in advance. So I hope they advertise and sell the tickets earlier,'' she said.
Kim Sun-kyung, an official of Interpark INT, said that although they cannot figure out the exact number of Japanese audience members because they usually buy tickets on the spot without reservations, it's an apparent trend that a growing number of Japanese viewers are coming to the theater to see the stars firsthand.
Lee Jee-hoon, a singer-turned-actor who performed well in the musical ``Hamlet,'' is expected to draw a large number of Japanese fans to his new musical ``The Harmonium in My Memory,'' which will be on stage from April 7.
Lee also successfully went from singing to acting with the TV drama, ``You Are My Destiny.'' He has been busy with concerts and releasing albums in Japan and has a solid fan base there.
``Although the show has not begun yet, we heard that Lee's fan club has made reservations to see his performances, so we're expecting a large number of Japanese audience members at the upcoming musical,'' Ahn Joo-young, an official of the Clip Service, an organizer of the musical, said.
Lee will play Kang Dong-soo, an elementary school teacher and warm-hearted man who takes good care of his pupils, mostly children from poor families.
The musical will be on stage at Hoam Art Hall from April 7 to May 24. Tickets cost from 35,000 to 50,000 won. For more information, call (02) 501-7888.
Meanwhile, about 60 Japanese fans watched the Korean version of the Broadway musical ``Dreamgirls'' on Feb. 28, its opening day, to see movie actor Kim Seung-woo, whose dramas have been aired in Japan. The musical is now on stage through July 26 at Charlotte Theater. Kim portrays the role of Curtis, played by Eddie Murphy in the film version. It is Kim's first time appearing on a musical stage.
``Nanta (Cookin')'' produced by PMC Production is one of the Korean representative non-verbal performances, using the cooking utensils and integrating traditional ``samulnori'' rhythm with comic drama. It is a perennial performance in the tourism industry, mainly due to its non-verbal nature, along with ``Jump,'' a Korean martial arts performance.
But from last November, a dramatic number of Japanese tourists have been flocking to the theater, so PMC Production has decided to open an additional theater to host the surging number of Japanese viewers.
Cecil Nanta Theater opened exclusively for foreign tourists Feb. 25, making the total of Nanta theaters four in Seoul.
According to PMC Production, the number of Japanese audience members shot up by 40 percent from the same period last year.
``To better host a growing number of foreigners, mostly Japanese visitors, we've decided to run one more theater for them at Cecil Theater, with 210 seats, in the heart of the city. In the theater, Japanese viewers account for about 85 percent of the total audience,'' Lee Dong-hyun, an official of the PMC Production, said.
``The rush of Japanese and other East Asian tourists is expected to continue throughout this year at a consistent pace,'' he said.
Recently, many tourism agencies are connecting Korean tours to its musicals and other performances. A Japanese woman named Yanagita, in her 50s, said that she came to Seoul with her two daughters for such tours.
``It is our first time to visit Korea. I originally planned to tour around Seoul but the online tourism Web site mentions the Nanta performance, so I came to see the show as part of my tour,'' she said.
Behind the rush of Japanese tourists to theaters are various Web sites containing information about Korean tours and tips on the local musicals.
The Web site www.lookkorea.jp offers Korean tours including performances of the musical ``The Harmonium in My Memory,'' starring Lee Jee-hoon, for his fans in Japan in the category of drama and film location tours.
The Web site www.seoulnavi.com offers information about Korean performances such as ``Nanta,'' ``Jump'' and ``Bachelors' Grocery Store.''
Park Seo-yeon, manager of the musical production company of ``Bachelors' Grocery Store,'' said that the musical has just been promoted through the Web site.
``Until recently, foreign tourists usually chose non-verbal performances such as `Nanta' and `Jump.' But we think it's necessary to introduce our own homegrown musicals with lyrics in the native language to foreigners to help them better understand Korean culture,'' Park said.
She also said there's no great difficulty for them in understanding the Korean-language shows because there are numerous shows ― music and dances with dramatic elements.
``All these elements help them understand what's going on, so they seem to have no difficulties understanding them. But we'll make Japanese language programs soon to provide better services,'' she said.
However, their convenience leaves much to be desired in small theaters and musical companies. To develop and sustain new audience members from abroad, Japanese tourists argue that the Korean musical companies and theaters should improve ticket reservation systems and language services, such as subtitles, programs and listings.