Yun takes musical ’Hero’ to New York
This is the third in a series of interviews with the heads of Korea’s top theatrical companies. — ED.
By Kwon Mee-yoo
The life and story of Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910), a Korean independence activist and Pan-Asian philosopher, will hit New York’s Broadway from Aug. 23 to Sept. 3 through the musical “Hero,” produced and directed by Yun Ho-jin.
It is Yun’s second foray onto the international stage and he is confident that he can captivate audiences with technology and a storyline dealing with a patriotic icon and his “Peace of East Asia” philosophy.
Some four containers of sets and props, including a life-size railway carriage, left for the United States months ago and the actors are rehearsing at night to adjust to the New York time zone ahead of their arrival next week.
“The audiences will be awed by the spectacle of the Harbin Train Station scene where Ahn assassinates Ito Hirobumi and I am positive that the story will impress international audiences,” Yun said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Bringing ‘The Last Empress’ on stage
Yun, 63, CEO of Acom International, started his career as a director. Though he majored in engineering at university, he became a promising young director in the 1970s, staging works such as “The Island” by Athol Fugard.
A trip to England changed the life of the aspiring director. He was selected for an overseas training course and trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in London as an observer in 1982.
On his first day in London, he headed to the West End and watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats.”
“It was a totally new experience. I was sure that we should prepare for this as Koreans will love it. You know, Koreans are good at singing and dancing,” Yun said.
The experience made him leave for New York to study at the age of 37 and he took a master’s course in performing arts at New York University from 1984 to 1987
“When I returned to Korea, I decided to create a world-famous musical despite what people might say,” he said. “I wanted to bring my show to New York someday.”
After returning to Korea, he founded Acom International in 1993 and started to work on a musical that could represent his home country.
“The year 1995 was the 100th anniversary of Empress Myeongseong’s assassination and I wanted to lift the negative image about the last empress of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910),” the director said. “I did not have much knowledge in making a musical then but I thought it was worth a try.”
Acclaimed author Yi Mun-yol wrote the script and popular music composer Kim Hee-gap composed the music with lyrics written by his wife Yang In-ja.
“I first sought Claude-Michel Schenberg, the composer of ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Miss Saigon,’ for my musical, but I was short of money and turned to Korean creative staff. I liked the melody of Kim’s song ‘Hyangsu’ (Nostalgia) and asked him to write songs for ’The Last Empress,’” Yun said.
“The Last Empress” hit the stage on Dec. 30, 1995. “I originally planned to raise the curtain on Oct. 8, the day of Empress Myeongseong’s death, but the start was postponed due to financial difficulties,” he said.
The musical was remarkably successful and the accomplishment gave Yun confidence to take the show to New York in 1997.
“I was sure that it would attract audiences in New York if it could do so in Korea” Yun said. “It took a while to persuade the Lincoln Center, one of the most prestigious theaters in New York, to stage a Korean musical, but I was able to return to New York after 10 years with my show.”
The show indeed proved to be a hit and received favorable reviews and the Lincoln Center invited the musical to return in 1998.
Performed more than 1,000 times for 15 years, “The Last Empress” became a representative homegrown musical. It drew some 1.3 million in Korea and performed in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and London.
Yun still trims the musical every time it is staged. “The Last Empress” will return to the stage of the grand theater of Chungmu Art Hall from Oct. 29 to Nov. 20.
Confidence in ‘Hero’
Drawing on from the success of “The Last Empress,” Yun imbued new life to patriot Ahn.
“It started as a coincidence. An official from a commemorative association for Ahn came to me and insisted on making the story into a musical on his 100th anniversary of death in 2009. At first, his remarks went in one ear and out the other,” Yun said. “However, he returned with more references later and explained the connection between Empress Myeongseong and Ahn. The first reason for Ahn to assassinate Ito, the Japanese Resident-General of Korea, was the murder of the last empress.”
The story stuck in Yun’s mind and he decided to work on staging Ahn’s life as a loose sequel to “The Last Empress.” After some five year’s of pre-production, the musical “Hero” finally opened in 2009 to rave reviews and is now headed to the U.S.
“I wanted the person who gave me the idea to come and see ‘Hero,’ but I heard that he died of a heart attack a few years ago. I think he was a reincarnated, young Ahn who came to persuade me,” the producer said.
Yun emphasized that the national status of Korea is different from 14 years ago when he first took “The Last Empress” abroad. “We will show them how much Korean musicals have developed since then,” he said.
“While ‘The Last Empress’ depends on sentiment, ‘Hero’ is filled with new technology. We have digital image projections and a life-size train on stage,” the producer said. “And the story of Ahn can reach international audience better then Empress Myeongseong, I think.”
Yun paid careful attention to the New York production of the musical. A chase scene involving the independence army and Japanese police will be more powerful. “It is almost like extreme sports. I also added more detail to the relationships between the characters.”
He knew that people from other countries might see Ahn’s assassination of Ito as a terrorist attack.
“Ahn is a hero to us, but he could be seen as a terrorist to foreigners. However, he was the person who came up with the ‘Peace of East Asia’ philosophy, which has a link with the current United Nations’ peacekeeping work. We will show that Ahn is not just a patriotic activist, but a philosopher concerned about peace in Asia.”
“Hero” in New York is not commercially viable. “We will see some $1 million deficit even if all performances are sold out. But I think it is meaningful to introduce a well-made Korean musical in the U.S.,” Yun said. “I’m thinking of various consequences — it could be a big success or be canned by critics. We will see how it goes.”
After the New York performances, Yun plans to take the musical to Japan and China. “The two countries are perfect locations for the musical as it conveys a message of pan-Asia peace.”
For more information about the New York performances of “Hero,” visit www.davidhkochtheater.com.
To nurture young talent
“Broadway and the West End is running out of material. Harsh reviews of ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ and ‘Love Never Dies’ prove the phenomenon,” Yun said. “Korean musicals should stop following such Western musicals and dig up material and music they cannot make.”
Yun’s next project is more universal, a love story. The musical “Arang” is based on Choi In-ho’s 1995 novel “Mongyudowondo,” the story of a love triangle between a king of the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-660 A.D.) and married couple A-rang and Do-mi.
“I staged the show in 2002, but will totally revamp it with Korean-Japanese crossover musician Yang Bang-ean’s music and playwright Bae Sam-sik’s script.”
Yun already has a clear picture in his mind. “The stage will be like a scroll of an Oriental painting using technology. Yang’s music, blending the East and the West, is going to compliment the tragic love story. I will compete with the Broadway musicals in five years with ‘Arang.’”
He admitted the limited appeal of Korean musicals overseas is due to the language barrier. As a producer aiming to enter Broadway, he wants to nurture young Koreans specializing in musical theater.
“I want to establish a boarding school for talented children. I will focus on teaching foreign languages — English, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish — and musical instruments for the elementary school stage and the students will learn to sing and dance after hitting puberty and having their voices change,” he said.
Yun expected that some 10 years of specialized education will train them as actors suitable for the international stage. “I want to see my students hold sway over Broadway and the West End,” he said with a smile.