'Beethoven Secret' viewers left wanting after cliché love story

A scene from the ongoing new musical "Beethoven Secret" at Seoul Arts Center in Seocho District, southern Seoul [EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

The musical “Beethoven Secret,” which premiered last month in southern Seoul, seemed to be set up for the perfect success.

It was written by a globally-renowned writer, produced by one of the country's biggest musical companies, and starred top actors.

It was the most anticipated new musical of the year that was suppose to impress not just the local audience but also foreign producers from multiple countries who have shown interest in buying the show's license ahead of the premiere.

But one month into the production run, the musical is getting slammed with negative reviews. On local ticketing platform Yes24, it has two stars out of five as of Feb. 5.

So what went wrong? “Beethoven Secret" is instead showing that local theatergoers these days can no longer be wheedled with what used to be considered the industry’s formula for success.

A scene from the ongoing new musical "Beethoven Secret" at Seoul Arts Center in Seocho District, southern Seoul [EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

The musical is about an “immortal romance,” as the show calls it, between Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and his secret lover Antonie Brentino (1780-1869). Brentino is widely speculated by scholars to be the “eternally beloved” referenced in Beethoven’s letters that were found in his room after he died.

In the show, she is the cure for Beethoven’s suffering soul and his inspiration for the last 10 or so years of his life, during which he produced some of his most important pieces. The catch is that Brentino was married and already had children when the two met.

Though there is a seemingly unending appetite for stories with forbidden love and scandalous affairs in the world, it isn’t what theatergoers were looking for in this particular show. Many expecting to be galvanized by Beethoven’s musical achievements and the struggles that he had to overcome are left disappointed by the ever so humble human depiction of the musician.

Beethoven is a prolific music genius who revolutionized classical music as we know it today. He led the transition from the Classical period (roughly from 1750 to 1820) to the Romantic period (around 1800 to 1850) with unbridled and heavily emotional music.

In the show, however, there aren’t enough scenes to convince the audience of Beethoven’s grandeur: He is only portrayed as an incredibly troubled and unstable man, constantly wrapped in anger and anxiety, leading many audience members to think that Beethoven lacks character.

The story instead focuses on his love for Brentino — or Toni, as she is affectionately referred to by the characters in the show — although he still appears agonized as the two repeatedly kiss and break up throughout the 165 minutes of the show.

“This show shouldn’t be titled ‘Beethoven.’ I couldn’t find any reason for this show to use Beethoven to tell this plot,” reads one review on Yes24 written last month.

“People going shouldn’t be expecting a show about Beethoven, because this is a cliché show about a love affair,” reads another posted around the same time.

To the creatives’ credit, the producers and writer have consistently described the show as an ultimate romance. In a press conference on Jan. 19, script supervisor Lee Dan-bi explained that “Beethoven Secret” is about “a famous musician who, as he loses his hearing, finds inspiration for great music in love.”

Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze began working on the show seven years ago. Their previous works include “Elisabeth,” “Rebecca,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Mozart!” — all of which have been huge hits in Korea.

Part of the reason for these musicals’ popularity was their music, which consisted of tunes that left audiences humming as they left the theater.

The news that the German duo was behind “Beethoven Secret” built up considerable hype, especially as word got out that they had incorporated Beethoven’s actual music in all 52 of its songs. Lyrics have been added to modified versions of Beethoven’s iconic melodies from pieces such as “Für Elise” and “The Waldstein.”

It was an ambitious attempt, but it largely failed to impress too many local viewers who felt it wasn't doing justice to the original music. Reviews describe it as “awkward” and an “overly simplified version of the original.”

“Beethoven Secret” opened during the Korean musical market’s heyday, with its profits surpassing 400 billion won ($319 million) in 2022 for the first time ever, according to the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System. Riding this high, the show was produced with the intention of being performed abroad. Its production company EMK calls it a “world premiere.” But such negative responses may put into question whether production companies abroad will still be interested in buying the show’s license.

A scene from the ongoing new musical "Beethoven Secret" at Seoul Arts Center in Seocho District, southern Seoul [EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

For the local audience, the current response to “Beethoven Secret” shows that their taste in musicals and standards for the genre is evolving.

Romance clichés in musicals could have been overlooked seven years ago when Levay first began making “Beethoven Secret.” But with the rapid growth of the country’s musical market, their expectations of shows have also gone up. Also, dozens of world-class, sophisticated musicals, such as “Wicked,” “Hadestown,” “Rent,” “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Hedwig,” have been staged in Korea and were incredible successly in the past several years.

People may have been introduced to a musical for the first time because of celebrity actors in the shows’ casts, but they left becoming a fan of the show. Many have evolved into avid enthusiasts of the genre; They watch shows with scrutiny — often the same show multiple times — and don’t hesitate to express their thoughts on the actors’ performances or the show itself.

But the musical isn’t a complete flop, with the industry’s top talents giving it their all each performance.

“I saw the reviews so I wasn’t expecting much, but I was blown away by the actors’ performance,” reads one review.

“I’m looking forward to how the actors grow into their roles as they continue the run,” reads another.

VIP seats for performances with singer Park Hyo-shin as Beethoven are nearly all sold out for February. Park is a chart-topping solo singer best known for songs such as “Snow Flower” (2004) and “Wild Flower” (2014).

Salary worker Kim Hyun-jung, 28, said that she has watched “Beethoven Secret” three times already, all with Park in the lead, and she plans to watch more of his shows.

“Musicals are a great way to hear Park sing up close,” she said. “I don’t enjoy ‘Beethoven Secret’ as much as the other shows that Park Hyo–shin has starred in in the past, but I still want to be supportive of my favorite singer.”

Similar comments saying that they were satisfied with just hearing their favorite singers or actors sing were easily found online.

“Beethoven Secret” runs through March 26 at Seoul Arts Center Opera House in Seocho District, southern Seoul. The role of Beethoven is alternated among Park Hyo-shin, Park Eun-tae and Kai. Jo Jung-eun, Ock Joo-hyun and Yoon Gong-joo will alternate the role of Antonie. It is performed in Korean, without foreign language subtitles.