Kim Jun-su of JYJ stars in “Elisabeth,” which has attracted a number of overseas fans to the Korean musical scene.
/ Courtesy of EMK Musical
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Ichikawa Rie came from Japan to see the musical “Elisabeth.” She is a fan of JYJ’s Jun-su, who is starring in the show. “I was thrilled to see him performing the role of Tod, or Death, live,” Ichikawa said.
Rows of wreaths stand at the lobby of Blue Square Music Hall, a new theater in Hannam-dong, Seoul, where the musical is being staged. They are from fans of the actors and the language on the ribbons varies from Korean and Japanese to Chinese and Taiwanese, showing the diversity of support. The recipients are not only K-pop star Jun-su and television actor Song Chang-eui, but musical actors Ryu Jung-han and Park Eun-tae.
Ichikawa first visited Korea to see Jun-su in “Mozart” in 2010 and soon fell in love with Korean musicals. “There are many musicals in Japan too but I feel something special about Korean actors. They sing really well and convey their emotions in the songs,” she said. “I have seen other Korean musicals and hope to see more of them.”
The Korean musical industry is busy attracting foreigners to local theaters, while making forays into overseas markets at the same time.
From K-pop to K-musical
The Korean musical industry has been steadily building up for years, growing bigger as big shows cast K-pop singers.
According to Interpark, the nation’s largest online ticket seller, the size of the market was around 250 billion won in 2011. It has grown for the past decade.
Interpark Ticket Global, an English reservation service, opened in August 2009 and tickets sold jumped over 167 percent in 2011, compared to the previous year.
“We can estimate the number of foreigners buying tickets by combining those sold at the global site and those who have an alien registration number,” Kim Sun-kyung of Interpark said. “Currently, the most popular shows among foreigners are ‘Elisabeth’ and Me If You Can,’ both starring K-pop singers such as Jun-su and Key of SHINee.”
“Hallyu,” or the Korean wave, for musicals began around 2009 when Ahn Jae-wook was cast in “Jack the Ripper.” His appearance drew fans from overseas, signaling the possibility of a Korean wave in plays and musicals. M Musical Company, the producer of “Jack the Ripper,” said more than 10 percent of the audiences were foreigners, mostly Chinese or Japanese.
Musicals based on hit movies and television dramas have been staged overseas, bringing existing fans of Korean pop culture to theaters. “Two hundred-Pound Beauty,” another movie-turned-musical starring KARA’s Park Gyu-ri, sold tickets worth some 400 million yen during its run in Kyoto last October, thanks to the popularity of the girl band in Japan.
Some productions target hallyu fans from the beginning. PMC Production, famed for the success of the non-verbal performance “Nanta,” staged the musical “Romance of Their Own,” based on the 2004 movie of same name, in 2011.
It is a jukebox musical featuring various K-pop hits from 2PM’s “Heartbeat” to KARA’s “Mister.”
“About 35 percent of the audience were foreigners from Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan and even from the United States and France,” Shin Ji-youn of PMC said. “They first come to see their favorite singers such as Ryeowook of Super Junior, but later they watch the show again with a different cast. We plan to take the show overseas but the details have yet to be decided.”
Musical critic Cho Yong-shin said considering overseas markets from the planning stage has become a trend for shows in Korea.
“Previously, theatrical works were produced only for the home market, but the domestic market is saturated. Instead of accepting such limitations, producers are now making inroads into international markets,” Cho said.
He said there are so many musicals created in Korea and some of them are suitable for overseas. According to Interpark, 2,140 musicals were staged in Korea last year alone, a 14 percent jump from 1,880 in 2010.
“K-pop is now on the forefront of hallyu and more producers are eager to cast K-pop stars in their shows. Jukebox musicals featuring K-pop are also being experimented with. These can be seen as an aspect of the diversity,” the critic said.
Aiming at Asian market
Neighboring countries, China and Japan, are prime targets for Korean musicals heading abroad.
CJ E&M, a giant investor and producer in the musical industry, made a successful entrance into China by establishing joint venture United Asia Live Entertainment with China Arts and Entertainment Group and Shanghai Media Group.
It co-produced a Chinese version of “Mamma Mia!” in six cities from Shanghai to Beijing and Guangzhou last year. The six-month tour drew 250,000 people and recorded 20 billion won in sales. CJ E&M mediated between the original creators from the United Kingdom and the local Chinese production based on its rich experience in staging licensed musicals.
“Mamma Mia!” will tour 10 more cities in Greater China including Hong Kong and Macau and “Cats” is in preparation for its Chinese opening in September. Since China is an enormous, emerging market, CJ E&M ultimately seeks to introduce homegrown musicals.
“I think Korea has the most developed system in the musical industry among Asian countries and we should take pride in it,” said Kim Byeong-seok, senior vice president of CJ E&M Performing Arts Business Unit. “The successful joint production of Mamma Mia! in China could be a good example of an exchange in the cultural industry celebrating the 20th anniversary of Korea-China diplomatic relations.”
CJ E&M takes a different approach to Japan. The firm took part in staging “200-Pound Beauty” there with original Korean production company Shownote and the Shochiku Company in Japan.
“It created a synergy of good content with K-pop singers such as Gyu-ri of KARA. We see more possibilities for musicals with the existing popularity of hallyu, especially K-pop there,” Kim said.
CJ also said two more musicals are sounding out possibilities in Japan this year — “Street Life,” a DJ DOC jukebox musical, and “Lovers of Paris,” based on the 2004 drama.
“We could create a ’one Asia market’ covering China, Japan and Korea, and Korea will lead the musical industry,” Kim said.
Small productions are also making their way abroad. “Laundry,“ a homegrown musical that enjoyed success in the Korean theater district Daehangno drawing some 280,000 people since its premiere in 2005, was performed in Japan in February. Japanese production company Pure Marry bought the license for the show and Japanese actors performed the roles. Chu Min-joo, playwright and director of the musical, went to Japan to head the show.
Lee Ji-ho, producer of “Laundry,” said a Japanese promoter saw the musical in Korea and contacted him about the license. “I think we concluded a favorable contract,” he said. “February performances were more like presentations introducing the show to Japan and we signed for additional nights in Tokyo in May. We see the show touring more Japanese cities later.”
“Laundry” portrays the everyday life of ordinary Seoulites. “I worried that Laundry might only draw sympathy from Korean audiences, but it resonated with those from different cultures as well. This is a meaningful step for a Korean musical,” Lee said.