'The Phantom of the Opera' isn't in Broadway, but it is in Korea

From left, CEO and producer of the local musical production company S&CO Danny Sihn, associate director of the musical's international tour production Rainer Fried and associate choreographer Denny Berry meet with the press on Monday at The Westin Jo

While Broadway bids farewell to its longest-running staple “The Phantom of the Opera” after 35 years, on the other side of the globe, Korea is revving up for the same show's grand reopening, coming in just about three weeks’ time to the southern port city of Busan and then to the capital city in July.

CEO and producer of the local musical production company S&CO Danny Sihn, the associate director of the musical's international tour production Rainer Fried and the associate choreographer Denny Berry met with the press on Monday at The Westin Josun Hotel in Jung District, central Seoul, to discuss the new production, the show’s enduring power and Korea’s unique relationship with it.

“The production we are putting together here is exactly the same show that Koreans know and love,” said Fried. “It is the original production as it was intended by [director] Hal Prince and his collaborators. We are very proud to be working on this and focusing on honoring the original team's vision.”

Sihn added that the upcoming production will recreate the stage that was used 37 years ago when the show first opened in London. Instead of using the stage set that is used on international tours, he said that a new set is being made in London specifically for this production.

“When the audience enters the theater, they will feel like they are at the Paris Opera House — even just by looking at the proscenium statues, they will be able to feel the sophisticated art,” said Sihn.

“The Phantom of the Opera” is based on the 1910 French novel “Le Fantome de l’Opera” by Gaston Leroux. It is about a soprano, Christine Daae, who becomes the obsession of a mysterious, disfigured musical genius called the Phantom. The show opened in the West End in 1986 before going to Broadway in 1988. It was directed by Broadway hitmaker Hal Prince, the music was written by the industry’s titan composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and choreographed by Gillian Lynne who was also behind the choreography for the musical “Cats.”

Poster for the upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera" [S&CO]

The upcoming production has four actors who will alternate the role of Phantom: actor Cho Seung-woo, musical actor Jeon Dong-suk and baritone Julian Kim for performances in Busan, along with musical actor Choi Jae-rim who will join for the Seoul performances from July. Sopranos Sohn Ji-soo and Song Eun-hye will alternate the role of Christine.

Sohn, who debuted in Italy through Gioachino Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville,” will be making her debut in musical theater with the role of Christine.

“Casting for the show is quite tricky because it requires classical background both in singing and dancing, and that isn’t easy to find anywhere in the world,” said Berry.

The find could have been more straining in Korea as many musical theater actors here do not come from traditional classical backgrounds but more oftentimes pop. Fried, however, said that he doesn’t cast people only based on their musical backgrounds.

“We have a very open mind for whoever walks into the room. There isn't one single background that you need to qualify for the role.”

What did make casting difficult this time around was the fact that Fried and Berry had to pick multiple actors in single roles — four Phantoms and two Christines to be exact — all through zoom.

“It is tiring to work with double, triple casts!” said Fried with a laugh, “just because it creates logistical problems. I personally was apprehensive about the workload, but found it much easier than I had feared because the actors were incredibly supportive and patient with each other.”

The four Phantoms who have been cast for this production of "Phantom of the Opera" [S&CO]

“Then digitally casting actors was nerve-wracking,” continued Fried. “We would always worry, ‘Did we cast the right people?’ And the answer is an emphatic yes! We have a strong cast with different personalities and musical backgrounds. If you really want to see all the work that we've done, I would say see it seven times with all the different cast pairings!”

“Phantom of the Opera” will run at Busan’s Dream Theatre from March 30 to June 18 with previews starting on March 25. It will be open in southern Seoul’s Charlotte Theater from July 14 to Nov. 17.

Sihn said that it has been one of his longstanding goals as the CEO of a leading local musical company to support productions outside the capital.

“We’ve been supporting regional performances since 2007 but haven’t been able to open a show in Busan because of the lack of infrastructure. But with the new Dream Theatre, we anticipate that this third Korean language production of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ can help make Busan a musical hub for the southern part of the country.”

Dream Theatre in Busan opened in 2019 as the city's first musical theater complex [CLIP SERVICE]

The very first production of “The Phantom of the Opera” was in 2001. Running for 244 performances, the show generated 19.2 billion won ($15.4 million) in ticket sales, and some 240,000 people came to see it. The numbers were seen as a huge commercial success in an industry that was worth only about 3 billion won at the time and cast hope for growth in the future. Today, the market is worth 182.6 billion won, according to Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System’s report last year.

“In 2001, the musical theater industry was very small here. But then ‘Phantom’ came and triggered a very special musical boom that I have never seen or heard in any other country,” said Fried. “We’ve since had three tours and two local productions. In previous press conferences, I’ve said that Korea has a love affair with ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ Today I would say, Koreans are in a marriage with the show. I am very thankful for the Korean audience and producers.”

As to the reason why the story is so loved, not only in Korea but also around the world, Berry said it is because the story is “timeless and universal.”

“It is a tale about love and rejection, which are the deepest and the most universal emotions that humans deal with. That is why the show transcends cultures and generations.”

“The Phantom of the Opera” in Korea also recently made global headlines when it kept shows going amid the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

Fried described being part of that production as an “unforgettable experience.”

“I remember two weeks before going to Korea, the city of Daegu was hit hard with Covid. So we arrived thinking we were traveling to a dangerous place in the world, but instead soon found we were in one of the safest places, as infection rates began to shoot up around the world. There was a moment in time when literally, we were actually the only theatrical production that was still running anywhere in this world.”

He continued, “We ended up successfully doing a seven-month run and even making it to Daegu. I am very grateful to the local producers for pushing forward with the show.”