Frank Wildhorn musicals take off in Korea on a high note

Composer Frank Wildhorn poses before the interview with the local press in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, on Thursday. [YONHAP]

Composer Frank Wildhorn is striking a chord with local musical audiences.

He has four shows simultaneously running in Korea: Locally produced musicals “Mata Hari,” “The Man Who Laughs” and “Death Note” are playing in Seoul while “Jekyll and Hyde” is touring around the country. This tops Wildhorn’s 1999 record of when had three shows — “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Civil War” — on Broadway at once.

Underneath his omnipresent baseball cap, Wildhorn on Thursday was bursting with pride and gratitude.

“I can’t believe what happened to my life that I keep waiting for someone to wake me up,” he said during an interview with the press in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. “There are days I can close my eyes and I am sitting on the beach in Florida where I was a lifeguard, which is the only other job I have ever had in my life.”

A scene during the musical ″The Man Who Laughs″ [EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

Born in Harlem, New York, Wildhorn is a self-taught piano player who started out his career as a composer in the pop world. He wrote songs for singers such as Whitney Houston and Trisha Yearwood before foraying to musical theater.

Maybe his pop roots are what clicked with Korea’s relatively nascent musical scene, which is also based on contemporary pop sounds, unlike Broadway, which bears a much deeper history.

Though he hasn’t been the Broadway critics’ pick, his tuneful scores have proven to be hit after hit in Korea since introducing his work in 2004 through the Korean production of “Jekyll and Hyde.”

A few months ago, it was brought to Wildhorn’s attention that even V of BTS is a fan of his work.

“There was a clip that showed [V] warming up to 'This is the Moment' before going on stage, and people were texting me ‘Frank you have to get him to play in ‘Jekyll and Hyde!’”

Actor Cho Seung-woo during a scene in the 2018 Korean production of ″Jekyll and Hyde″ [EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

Wildhorn said the Korean public’s affinity to his music cannot be intellectualized, likening his relationship with the local public to a “love affair.”

“It’s like dating — how do you define chemistry? You either have it or you don’t.”

With a young industry comes a younger generation of audiences, which is one characteristic that Wildhorn finds intriguing about the local musical theater scene.

“I was at a signing event for the musical ‘Death Note’ [in Korea] and this young girl seemingly in her 20s came up to me with 56 tickets asking me to sign them!” he said. “It is the only country that I know where the audience is so young and this passionate about musicals.”

He also highly regards the local talent, saying that actors like Ock Joo-hyun in “Mata Hari,” Park Hyo-shin in “The Man Who Laughs” and Kim Jun-su in “Death Note” are like hidden gems to the rest of the world.

“They are my favorite group of singers,” Wildhorn said.

Actor Kim Jun-su during a scene in the musical "Death Note" [YONHAP]

Wildhorn has had 16 shows open in Seoul in addition to 24 in Tokyo, 20 in Europe and 8 in New York.

Churning out more original Broadway musicals than any other American composer, some would say he has the ability to compose rather efficiently.

“Sometimes, too fast,” he said.

“It can take me a while, as long as months, to find the musical vocabulary of the songs and characters. But once I find the language and the musical world that I want to be in, it becomes weeks.

“It’s like shooting baskets in basketball. You get into a grove, and it is a wonderful Zen meditation for me.”

One upcoming project by Wildhorn is a musical score for a show based on a Korean historical movie, for which he studied Korean folk music. It will be his first musical based on a Korean story, though he said he cannot tell which movie it will be based off of yet.

Finding something uniquely Korean is important, Wildhorn said, and the key to the bigger adventure that the industry will embark on over the next few years.

“Right now, Korean everything is so hot in America. The next step for Korean musicals is to find stories that are both local but transcend local and work globally.”