From Broadway classics to local productions, Korean theaters have the bases covered

A scene from the ongoing musical "Moulin Rouge!" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul [CJ ENM]

It is a busy time for theatergoers as a series of classical, must-see shows with star-studded casts are opening en masse in theaters across Seoul.

According to the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System, the local musical market's profits surpassed 400 billion won ($319 million) in 2022 for the first time in history. In December, musical theater accounted for 70.6 percent, or 55.7 billion won, of the total monthly profit of performing arts, 78.9 billion won.

The theater today is a place where one can observe the real-time effects of what local economists call “revenge spending” after Covid-19, which refers to excessive spending after a period of capped opportunities to spend.

Even though the price of VIP tickets has gone up from 150,000 won to 160,000 won or even 180,000 won, theaters are teeming with people both young and old and there are hardly any empty seats.

Competition among shows is expected to grow as large-scale musicals starring A-list actors, like “Beethoven” with Park Hyo-shin and “The Phantom of the Opera” with Cho Seung-woo, have recently opened or are expected to open throughout the first half of the year.

Ongoing musicals “West Side Story,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “Hero” are rising as the most popular shows this season. They are especially noteworthy because all three have either recently been made into a movie or were inspired by a movie.

“West Side Story”

A scene from the ongoing musical "West Side Story" at Chungmu Art Center in Jung District, central Seoul [SHOWNOTE]

Production company Shownote, known for staging progressive shows such as “Hedwig” and “Great Comet” in Korea, is staging the 1967 Broadway classic “West Side Story” at Chungmu Art Center in Jung District, central Seoul, through Feb. 26.

It is the musical's first show in Korea since 2007. The musical has earned newfound popularity after Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of the same title was released in 2021.

A scene from the movie adaptation of "West Side Story" (2022) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The $100 million screen version didn’t do too well at the box office despite its three wins at last year's Golden Globe Awards, but the original musical is still successfully captivating audiences each evening in Seoul.

The highlight of "West Side Story" is the choreography and music, which carries an artistic finesse that exceeds the level of simple entertainment. The score and dance don’t exist to simply serve the plot like most musicals these days, but, rather, each song and dance asserts its own artistic presence.

Spielberg himself said in a press interview that he grew up listening to the soundtrack of “West Side Story,” with all his family members knowing the songs and the lyrics by heart. He heralded it as “the best music on Broadway.”

This can be credited to the show’s creative team. Leonard Bernstein, a representative American composer of the 20th century and Broadway’s legend Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, the successor of George Balanchine who is often dubbed as the father of American Ballet, are all behind “West Side Story.”

Adapted from Shakespeare’s prominent tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” (1597), the musical's plot draws on Tony and Maria’s love that grows despite the animosity between Tony’s Caucasian New York street gang friends and Maria’s brother and friends who migrated to New York from Puerto Rico.

It isn't a rich, intricate story, but it is relevant with racism and xenophobia at their height.

Star actors Kim Junsu, Park Kang-hyun and Go Eun-sung alternate the role of Tony and Han Jae-ah and Lee Ji-soo alternate for Maria.

“Moulin Rouge!”

A scene from the ongoing musical "Moulin Rouge!" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul [CJ ENM]

Ranking No. 1 on the ticketing platform Interpark is the Korean production of the 21st-century classic “Moulin Rouge!”

It is the musical’s first show in Asia, after being staged in Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany.

With local entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM as part of the team of producers behind the original U.S. production of “Moulin Rouge!” the show premiered in Boston in 2018. After being staged on Broadway in 2019, it swept the awards season in the United States and the United Kingdom with a total of 36 awards, including 10 wins during the 2021 Tony Awards.

The original production was especially known for staging a sumptuous show on Broadway with $28 million in production costs. Its production in Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul, is proving hardly different.

The crimson-colored stage design automatically transports audiences to the small cabaret in Paris, France, upon entry. The windmill and a large elephant, symbolic of the Moulin Rouge cabaret of 1998, hang on the two sides of the Blue Square theater. The ensemble cast comes on stage 10 minutes before the musical officially begins and eases the audience into the spectacle that is about the begin by putting on an alluring pre-show dance performance.

Unlike “West Side Story,” the movie version of the show precedes the musical “Moulin Rouge!”

A scene from the movie "Moulin Rouge!" (2001) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Director Baz Luhrmann, behind hit film “The Great Gatsby” (2013), took the helm of the movie “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001 with Hollywood actors Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in lead roles. The movie featured the two actors singing classic pop songs such as Elton John’s “Your Song” (1970) and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (1992) as well as songs by more 21st-century pop artists such as Adele, Beyoncé and SIA. By putting together over 70 songs that were globally loved over two centuries, “Moulin Rouge!” became the ultimate jukebox musical film. The copyright issues alone took over 10 years to solve, according to film creatives.

The storyline is a classic one: Cabaret dancer Satine and aspiring composer Christian fall in love despite difficulties posed by the rich duke who wants Satine to himself. Christian sings “Why live if there is no love” to the duke who boasts his riches. Lines and lyrics like this quickly get the audience cheering for their fairytale ending.


A scene from the ongoing musical "Hero" at LG Arts Center in Gangseo District, western Seoul [ACOM]

“Hero” draws on the final year of Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, when he assassinated the first Japanese resident-general of Korea Hirobumi Ito at a railway station in Harbin, China. Five months later, he is executed at the age of 34.

The musical was first staged in 2009 to commemorate the 100th year since Ahn’s death. It is one of the first original Korean musicals, meaning that it was produced in Korea and a local production holds the copyright of the material. The ongoing production is being held at LG Arts Center in Gangseo District, western Seoul, through Feb. 28.

The movie adaptation, helmed by megahit director Yoon Je-kyun, is Korea’s first-ever musical film to be based on a homegrown show. It premiered in local theaters on Dec. 21.

Veteran actor Jung Sung-hwa appears as Ahn in the movie and also alternates the same role in the musical.

A scene from the movie "Hero" (2022) [CJ ENM]

Though the screen version was underwhelming in some parts, it is noteworthy in that the musical can now reach a wider audience and can serve as an opportunity for the Korean musical industry to more widely publicize its presence in the global market as Korean entertainment contents continue its heyday.

Artistic director Yun Ho-jin, behind the two-week run of “Hero” in New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2011, said, “Ahn Jung-geun is the person who sparked the anti-Japanese movement in China as well, so his story has great potential to appeal to the Chinese and Southeast Asian audiences as well. The response to the movie is proving to be more than expected, and I think this will aid the local industry vying to enter the global market.”