Kim Hye-young's "Sunfish" was performed at the Daegu International Musical Festival last week. / Courtesy of Daegu International Musical Festival
New York-based composer gives Korean folktale a modern twist
By Kwon Mee-yoo
The story of "Simcheong," revolving around a girl and her single-minded devotion to her blind father, is considered by some to be the most "Korean" of all Korean folktales.
So a few eyebrows were raised when New York-based composer Kim Hye-young began her efforts to produce a modern, Broadway-style musical from the medieval Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) story that sways widely between melancholy, humor and fantasy.
After nine years of anticipation, Kim's "Sunfish" finally arrived on Korean shores, being performed at the Daegu International Musical Festival, which continues through July 8.
"Sunfish" was originally first staged in 2004 as Kim's graduation project at New York University's Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.
Kim, who composed the music, has since been collaborating with Michael Cooper, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the script, to tweak and improve the piece. The previous versions of the musical won the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award and Daniel Marshall Multicultural Award in 2005, and the BWW Boston Awards for Best Musical in Medium Theater in 2011.
To Kim, the response in Korea will matter just as much.
"‘Sunfish' opened great opportunities in theater to collaborate with some special talent," Kim said in Daegu.
"When the idea to make Simcheong into a musical first came up, I worried that the show might end up being something typical, a predictable representation of traditional Korean values on family and women. For me and Cooper, breaking this stereotype was a priority."
"Sunfish" gives Simcheong a new name, "Aheh," who is still paired with a father in need of her care. They live as beggars, but when Aheh learns about a miracle cure that could allow her father to see again, she is willing to give up her life for the money needed to purchase the cure.
The rest is similar to the old tale. Yes there is a "God of the Sea," and she is offered to it as a sacrifice, only it lets her return to Earth so she can marry the king. As queen, Aheh orders a search for her father, finds him and happiness ensues. The title "Sunfish" comes from Aheh's nickname her father has given her.
There will be cultural differences in how the Simcheong story is accepted here and abroad. Kim said when the show was staged in America, some in the audiences found it difficult to understand Aheh's decision to leave her father.
"The point is that Aheh gives up her everything to restore her father's sight. It's ultimately a story about family and how much you will be willing to do for someone you love," Kim explained.
While the story has its Korean roots intact, the music is entirely cutting-edge Broadway. Aside of the "jing," or traditional Korean gong, that opens up the show, there is no hint of Korean music in Sunfish.
The characters in the story are notably more independent and individualistic. Aheh is portrayed as a strong and optimistic woman who will relentlessly work for the 300 bags of rice needed to cure her father's blindness.
In the Joseon version of Simcheong, the king is a presence but not fully a character. In Kim's version of the tale, he is much more developed as Simcheong's love interest, probably because Broadway musicals always need a love duet. Kim also developed Madame Omi, a forgettable character in the original, into a Disney-style villain who takes advantage of blind people and is punished at the end.
While Korean elements like Buddhism and rice used as currency are still intact with the show, but it seems that Kim and Cooper have made the story universal enough: the background could be any coastal village anywhere and probably anytime.
The show's international cast, including Joanna Carpenter as Aheh, Eric Turner as Father and Jamie Kolnick as Madame Omi, strengthens this cosmopolitan flavor.
"We wanted to cast multicultural actors because we wanted to make a new world for Sunfish, not bound to ethnical difference," Kim said.
However, the overall experience of "Sunfish," which also considers set, props, stage effects and dramatic buildup, didn't suggest it had the grandeur to consistently fill up seats in big theaters, like the 1,500-seat Daegu Opera House.
Though "Sunfish" finished its Daegu run Sunday, Kim is seeking further opportunities. She wants wanted to stage the show either in a minimalized version or a bigger theater version.
"What would it be like to stage ‘Sunfish' in a small theater, only with a piece of silk that can create everything? It can be also staged in a larger theater with moving sets. I think the current version is in the middle," Kim said. "I hope Sunfish gets a long run someday."
Based in New York and Seoul, she travels between the two working on various projects. In the States, she develops the items she wants to make into a musical with other creators, while she is hired for producer-led musicals in the rapidly-growing Korean musical industry. Kim's new musical based on the movie "Sunny" is expected to open in Korea next year.