Plays flourishing again, musicals waning
By Chung Ah-young
Since the smashing success of “The Phantom of the Opera” prompted the rise of local musical productions both in quality and quantity in 2001, the lavish shows have been dominating the theater industry. Plays have been overshadowed by the decade-long musical boom.
But recently, plays have been enjoying growing popularity. The musical industry has been showing signs of a letup for the first time since 2001 while plays are attracting more stars from the small and big screens and more fans to the genre.
Won Jong-won, musical critic and professor at Soonchunhyang University, says that the market is fluctuating and now the industry is starting to change
This year, we can see that many plays are drawing more attention than musicals. The trend began last year and now musicals are not the main players in the performing arts scene,” he said.
According to InterparkINT, the nation’s largest online ticket reservation site, last year’s ticket sales for musicals amounted to 80 billion won, down from 100 billion in 2008. The number for the musicals was up slightly from 1,544 in 2008 to 1,653 last year. But the sales of tickets from plays came to 20.7 billion won, up from 17.4 billion won in 2008. The number of plays rose from 1,089 in 2008 to 1,458 last year.
“In the past, big-budget musicals such as ‘Miss Saigon’ were very popular among fans. But after seeing numerous blockbuster musicals flop, there has been a paradigm shift in the musical scene from blockbusters and expensive shows to high quality works, though they are scaled-down productions,” he said.
“This means the standards of the audience have become very high. It’s eventually a good sign for the performing arts scene in the long term as it leads to the diversification of the performing arts and widening the spectrum,” he said.
The musical production companies have also turned their eyes to producing plays. The Aga Company has recently launched the project “I Love the Stage” equivalent to “Yeongeuk Yeoljeon (Best Play Series).” For the project, the Aga Company will present eight plays ― "Fool for Love," "Closer," "True West," "Proof," "Art," "That Face," "Three Days of Rain" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" ― for nine months. The festival aims to boost small theater works and develop the local theater culture with a star-studded casting strategy to help the audience get better acquainted with the stage. The Aga’s project is following in the footsteps of “Yeongeuk Yeoljeon” that attract the big-name screen stars on stage initiated by actor-turned-programmer Cho Jae-hyeon. But the company is creating a new production trend by collaborating with the entertainment management company Namu Actors (Moon Geun-young, Kim Hyo-jin and Park Geon-hyeong ) and CJ Entertainment.
Kim Bu-kyung, a manager of the Performing Arts Financing and Production of the CJ Entertainment, said that the company will put more emphasis on pure theater. The company will promote “Ogu” starring Kang Bu-ja and directed by Lee Yoon-taek as a the steady seller, targeting the foreign audience. “Recently, the trend has shifted from musicals to plays. So the company is concentrating more on plays. The collaboration with the Aga’s project is part of the company’s cultural and entertainment policy,” she said.
The OD Musical Company’s recent production of “The Story of My Life” is a two-man show with a small budget but captivating storyline .
Park Myung-sung, head of the Seensee Musical Company, vowed to focus on producing more plays earlier this year. The company put on “Take Care of My Mom” based on Shin Kyung-sook’s million-selling novel of the same name earlier this year and scored a big success. The Show Pac presented the classic “The Rainman” while Musical Heaven produced “Beauty Queen.” The Dongsoong Art Center will announce “Yeongeuk Yeoljeon” for the second half of the year this week.
“But the problem is that plays are resorting to star names. If famous actors don’t appear on stage, the plays will lose their shine. The recent popular plays are also commercial. Like musicals, if plays don’t have any artistic value, they will not last long,” said Won. He added that compared to musicals with high production costs, plays need relatively low budgets, so investors can make profits from smaller initial stakes. “That’s why many corporations are investing in the productions of plays,” he said.
Won said that the theater industry is at a crossroads. “In the international theater scene, there are ups and downs. Small scale musicals such as ‘Rent’ and ‘Urine Town’ did well at a certain period and then the big-scale extravagant shows dominated at other times. The tastes of the audience are very whimsical,”he said. The critic said that the trend might be heading to the stable performing arts era after this transitional period.