Art and Seoul

South Korean legit takes cues from film, TV in effort to make noise o'seas

SEOUL — South Korea’s pop culture has never been hotter. Korean movie stars are phenoms in Japan, local TV dramas are smash hits throughout Asia, and think tanks peg the economic value of pan-Asian pop singer BoA at $1 billion.

But it’s locally produced musicals and stage plays that have remained the poor cousins of this boom. However, by taking some cues from its sister industries (and borrowing some of its talent), Korean legit may be laying the groundwork to make waves of its own overseas. This year will see Korean-produced musicals targeting auds in China, Japan, Russia and New York.

As with the film and television industries, Korean legit intends to build its international ambitions off the foundation of a strong domestic market. Musicals have made considerable headway in recent years among auds in their 20s, resulting in a steadily expanding number of shows staged and tickets sold.

Last year, viewers spent more than $55 million on tickets to musicals, accounting for better than half of ticket revenues for performing arts as a whole. In 2006, roughly 100 musicals are scheduled to run, up from 64 last year.

Licensed musicals and touring shows make up the majority of that market, with “Phantom of the Opera,” “Aida” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” all performing well in 2005 — the latter two boosted by local singers and film stars in lead roles.

French-language musicals are also performing well, with “Notre Dame de Paris” selling 71,000 tickets in a 30-performance run last year, to be followed by “Les Dix Commandements” in April.

But long term, musical producers have their hopes pinned on local product. According to Shin Chun-soo, president of OD Musical, which scored a hit with “Jekyll & Hyde” last year, the reliance on licensed product is “a transient phenomenon in the process of developing an established musical industry, through which Korean musicals can grow.”

Historically, only a few Korean musicals have managed to break out. ACOM Intl.’s “The Last Empress,” which focuses on the final days of the Korean royal family, has been seen by more than 800,000 theatergoers in 613 performances in Korea since its debut in 1995. The nonverbal percussion piece “Cookin’ ” (known locally as “Nanta”) by PMC Production is a perennial hit in Korea — and also finished an 18-month, 632-perf run Off Broadway last year, although the show ultimately suffered a net loss of $300,000.

Yet a new generation of musical producers and investors is upping its ambitions, particularly for the Asian region, where auds have embraced Korean soaps, movies and entertainers.

Indeed, two of Korea’s most successful TV dramas have both been chosen for adaptation into musicals: The stage incarnation of “Winter Sonata,” a 20-episode drama that enjoyed explosive popularity in Japan in 2004, started its multicity tour of Japan earlier this month. For its part, broadcaster MBC has announced that “Jewel in the Palace,” which boasted record 50% viewer ratings in Hong Kong and became a smash hit in China, is scheduled to hit the stage in early 2007.

Meanwhile, in April, ACOM will launch “Empress” on a highly publicized tour through Shanghai and Beijing. The company is also targeting Russia with a musical about half-Korean Soviet rock legend Victor Tsoi, who died in a car crash in 1990. Tentatively titled “A Star Called the Sun” after one of Tsoi’s songs, the production will be launched in Moscow this October with a Russian cast and crew.

Surprisingly, even Korean-language versions of licensed Western musicals such as “Hedwig,” “Bat Boy” and “Jekyll & Hyde” are being booked to tour through Japan. Star power is often the reason: Cho Seung-woo, who has received critical praise for his lead role in “Jekyll,” is also a well-known screen actor whose films “Marathon” and “The Classic” have played well in Japan.

Other locally produced hit musicals such as “A Wanderer in Winter,” based on a 1986 Korean film, are skedded to play Japanese theaters.

Joa Musical Co. believes it has hit on a topic that will work farther afield. “Maria Maria,” based on the biblical story of Mary Magdalene, has recently been confirmed for a Sept. 22-Oct. 14 run at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York. The Korean-language work, to be performed with supertitles, also has been selected as the first non-English production to play in the New York Musical Theater Festival.

To support the export of such local content, Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism sponsored the first Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) in October. The event, which brought together 1,400 professionals from 22 countries, was seen as a long-overdue effort to strengthen the business foundations of an industry that is still just finding its feet.

“Right now, Korea is laying the groundwork so that its cultural products can be well received and recognized abroad,” says PMC co-prexy Song Seung-hwan. The long-term goal, however, is clear. “An original musical that costs $100,000 to create can earn $100 million over the course of a decade.”

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