This is a scene from the musial "Gwanghwamun Sonata."
By Baek Byung-yeul
The Korean cultural boom of recent years ― which gave birth to the overused term ''hallyu'' ― was driven by pop music and television dramas. It bears further watching whether musical theater could provide a third growth engine.
While the Korean market for musicals has grown explosively in the past decade, the catalyst has been big-budget imports such as ''Phantom of the Opera,'' while works written and produced at home represented a smaller part of the market.
So it's inspiring for thespians here that local works such as ''Gwanghwamun Sonata'' and ''Goong'' are gaining impressive audience numbers in Japan. They are quick to point out that Japan was ground zero for the hallyu phenomenon, triggered when ''Winter Sonata'' first aired on NHK television a decade ago.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, "Gwanghwamun Sonata," built around the works of the late Lee Young-hoon, the songwriter who launched the career of popular Korean singer Lee Moon-se, has sold more than 76,000 tickets in Osaka and Tokyo since its debut in Japan last year.
"Goong," based on the eponymous comic book about an imaginary Korean monarchy, was also a hit, selling 18,000 seats during a 12-day run in Tokyo last year. According to Group Eight, the production company behind "Goong," the overall Japanese revenue from that limited performance amounted to 2.5 billion won (about $2.2 million). The Japanese success of these two shows was a coup as both were performed in Korean and left the local audience relying on subtitles.
The government is actively promoting musicals as Korean culture's next big thing. The culture ministry collaborated with the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Korea Musical Theater to launch a yearly Seoul Musical Festival last year.
The second event this year, scheduled for Aug. 6-13 at the Chungmu Art Hall in downtown Seoul, will newly include a trade fair aimed at promoting Korean musicals to foreign agencies.
''Many Japanese travelers visit Korea not only to watch original Korean musicals, but licensed works like The Three Musketeers, Jekyll & Hyde and Mozart, although they need subtitles to follow along. For them, the attraction is simple. Many of these shows feature K-pop stars and actors who are driving the hallyu boom and it's a unique experience for the fans to see them off the television screens and on the stage,'' said Yeon Dong-won, a pop culture critic.
''Of course, the problem of using singers and television actors in musicals is that quality is often compromised. But you can't dispute the effect they have on selling tickets.''
Korean musical companies weren't seriously thinking about the export potential of their works until 2010, when a local adaptation of the Austrian musical ''Mozart!'' became a massive hit with Japanese and other Asian visitors.
The musical, produced by EMK, had singer Kim Jun-su, a member of the popular boy band JYJ, alternating with other actors in the leading role. Tickets for the 15 performances that featured Kim sold out only three hours after online booking started with a significant portion of the orders coming from overseas.