A scene from “Gwanghwamun Younga”
By Kwon Mee-yoo
“Gwanghwamun Younga,” another big homegrown musical production, raised its curtain Sunday at the Grand Theater of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, Seoul, weaving a love story out of timeless numbers written by the late composer Lee Young-hoon.
The musical is an ambitious work interpreting songs by Lee through a love triangle, but relies too much on the composer’s personal story and weakens the show despite impassioned performances. The title comes from a song of the same title and “Younga” means love song in Korean.
The composer showed enthusiasm in staging a musical with his songs and wrote the synopsis when he was battling colon cancer. The work has finally come to fruition some three years after the composer passed away.
This is the first Korean jukebox musical produced with only a composer's songs. Worldwide hit jukebox musicals feature songs by or connected to a particular musician or group, such as "Mamma Mia!" based on Swedish group ABBA's hits or "All Shook Up" with the songs of Elvis Presley.
However, like most hit Korean pop songs, a great part of Lee’s are ballads about the joy of love and the sorrow of parting, limiting the show’s dramatic development.
The show starts with two white pianos on each side of the stage and Ji-yong, a young K-pop singer visiting legendary composer Han Sang-hoon to ask permission to perform Han's songs at his concert.
Then the two take a trip based on a synopsis Ji-yong wrote, or the story of Han, his friend Gang Hyeon-woo and a woman named Choi Yeo-ju.
Lee's jewel-like songs from "When Standing under the Shade of a Street Tree" to "Sunset Glow" tell the story of the three lovers. "Flying into the Deep Blue Night" was interpreted as a protest song during 1980s, when Korea buzzed with student activism.
The set is minimal. Two sides of the stage go back and forth between the present of Sang-hoon and Ji-yong's pianos and "Blue Azit," a club where the past Sang-hoon wrote his songs.
Projections on the screen change from a bookstore and park to fliers in the sky and musical notes. The famous stone wall of Deoksu Palace is projected on the backdrop of sheet music.
Actor Song Chang-ui and Yoon Do-hyun from YB share the role of Sang-hoon in the past. His delicate character is portrayed in Lee’s songs and Latin dance.
Lisa Chung, playing the female lead, steals the limelight when she sings the final number of the first act, but otherwise, it is difficult to understand why Yeo-ju vacillates between the two men.
Kim Moo-yeol plays Hyeon-woo, the student activist who takes Yeo-ju’s heart.
Yang Yo-seop of K-pop group B2st, alternating the role of Ji-yong with rocker Hur Gyu. Yang plays the role as if he is actually preparing for his own concert.
The one who captivates the audience is Park Jung-hwan, playing the role of present Sang-hoon. He portrays the agony of an artist and a man who gave up his love, wishing for her happiness.
The musical turns into a 130,000 won tribute to Lee at the end of the second act. Before Ji-yong's concert, his producer in a black suit comes onstage and says, "This show was his dream. Though he is not here with us, we believe that he is watching us from above." Though he only indicates to the composer as "he," it is too obvious.
Lim Young-kun, the show’s producer, said he wants "Gwanghwamun" to be a big love story musical representing Korea.
But it relies too heavily on the personal story of the late composer, instead of originality based on Lee's music.
Musicals are most popular among young women in their 30s, but the seats of “Gwanghwamun” are filled with middle-aged people, reminiscing about Lee’s songs. For those who know Lee’s work, this musical is beautifully intertwined to recollect those songs, but the younger generation, who only knows Lee by songs covered by K-pop groups such as Big Bang’s “Sunset Glow,” might be puzzled by the shabby storyline.
The musical runs through April 10 in Seoul. It will tour major cities such as Daegu, Daejeon and Gwangju afterward. Tickets cost from 30,000 won to 130,000 won. Call 1666-8662 for more information.