K-musicals aim to step out of Asia and onto the world stage

Students majoring in musical theater at Hongik University perform musical numbers at the opening ceremony of K-Musical Market in Seoul Arts Center, southern Seoul, on Nov. 24. [KOREA ARTS MANAGEMENT SERVICE]

The Korean government's habit of tacking on its "K" prefix to virtually everything that it wants to promote globally has been around ever since the success of K-pop. With the global success of BTS, “Squid Game” and “Parasite,” it looks like the Korean government’s K-branding has paid off, and K-pop, K-drama and K-movie proudly flaunt the alphabet's 11th letter.

But what about K-musicals?

The Korean musical market has tripled in size from 110 billion won ($92 million) in 2006 to 350 billion won in 2019, according to the latest data accumulated by the Korea Arts Management Service. The data also showed that licensed musicals accounted for a market share of 67 percent in 2016 but declined to 48 percent in 2020, whereas Korean original musicals accounted for 26 percent in 2016 and increased to 36 percent in 2020.

Though it was the Korean productions of licensed musicals such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago” and “Wicked” that contributed largely to the industry's growth in the past, industry insiders say Korean-made musicals have now caught up with the western standard, quality-wise, and deserve to wear the K-trophy.

In the early 2000s, Korean musicals usually clustered in Daehangno, an area in Jongno District, central Seoul, that has a bunch of small theaters — the Korean equivalent to off-Broadway in New York. Many musical-goers felt that Korean musicals lack the level of completion needed to compete shoulder to shoulder with the licensed musicals. It certainly was incomparable to the touring productions.

Over the recent years, musical production companies began investing more toward creating their own works, using skills nurtured by working with musical staff from overseas and backed by Korea’s top-class musical actors. After successful runs at 1,000-seater theaters in Seoul, Korean original musicals with universal stories or themes like “Frankenstein,” “Turandot,” “Hero” and “Vincent Van Gogh” were able to be licensed and remade in other Asian countries like Japan and China.

Insiders now want to go beyond Asia, to Broadway and the West End.

“However, Korean musicals that are finally of high-enough quality to go beyond Asia are struggling,” said Shin Chun-soo, chair of the Board of Korean Association of Musical Producers and the executive producer and president of a musical production firm called OD Company. “That’s because there’s not yet a stable environment for musical productions. There has to be some sort of a platform for boosting financing and providing investment opportunities throughout the entire process of the musical theater industry.”

Together with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Korea Arts Management Service and the Seoul Arts Center, Shin organized a three-day event called the K-Musical Market to encourage investment and to showcase outstanding Korean original musicals.

“We need to establish a rational production method and expand the Korean musical market,” Shin said. “It is also very important to form a business network and a friendly relationship between producers and investors from across the world.”

Chris Grady, former head of marketing for Edinburgh International Festival and Plymouth Theatre Royal, talks during a lecture session on the "Development Process of Musicals in the U.S. and the U.K." on Nov. 24. [KOREA ARTS MANAGEMENT SERVICE]

The inaugural event kicked off at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul on Nov. 24 and came to an end on Friday. For the ensuing three days, one-on-one business meetings, consulting sessions, networking programs and conferences were organized at different venues inside the center. The organizers also invited experts from the United States, Britain and Japan to deliver talks and to sit down with Korean musical creators and producers to network and give advice. Experts include Jack M. Dalgleish, an American theater and film producer who has garnered a Tony and Olivier and Drama Desk Awards for “Spring Awakening,” Jane Bergère, an Olivier Award- and multi-Tony Award-winning producer from New York who has produced over 50 musicals including “Kinky Boots,” “War Horse” and “Metamorphoses,” and James Seabright, a British theater producer who has produced over 100 shows in the West End including “Showstopper! The Improvised Musical” and “Potted Sherlock,” among many others.

Korean musical producers and creators also got to pitch their musicals before investors, either in incubation or already completed. A group of judges were also present to select winners of a cash prize to help further develop their work. A total of 22 works that were pre-selected by the organizers got to pitch their pieces for investment.

On Thursday, Bae Kyoung-hee, an editor of monthly musical magazine The Musical stood on stage as a producer during the Musical Pitching session held inside the Inchoon Art Hall. After falling in love with the music by British rock band The Libertines, Bae decided to turn their music into a musical: “Boys in the Band.” In 2016, Bae earned a music license to create the musical based on the band’s autobiographical story, immediately established a production company, Libertine, and set out on a journey co-writing the story with Kim Young-ju. The following year, she was able to present her first reading at a musical workshop. Bae even hosted the first solo concert of Carl Barat, a member of The Libertines, in 2019.

Shin Chun-soo, chair of the Board of Korean Association of Musical Producers and the executive producer and president of a musical production firm called OD Company, gives a presentation on Nov. 24 during a conference session on "Knocking on Musical

“The musical reinterprets their shocking story and music,” Bae said during the presentation. “Danny and Ash, loners with different backgrounds, run into each other in a dark forest, like destiny. The boys find out that they can make songs together and dream of changing the world through music. The musical will not be staged at conventional theaters but inside homes, just like the band performed in their own homes in 2003. Therefore, the tickets will be affordable and the running time will be short. There will only be three cast.”

Bae enthusiastically explained her vision within the given five minutes.

Although Bae said that all the conditions have been agreed upon with the band and that they just have to sign the contract regarding the performing rights, one of the judges seemed critical, saying the contract should be signed before she works on the details, otherwise, she may have to scrap the whole thing.

But Bae still managed to win an award that day and took home 5 million won.

“With their high quality and creativity, I am pleased to see K-musicals aiming for the international market after its explosive domestic growth. Despite the ongoing pandemic, it is encouraging to see Korean creative musicals like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Fan Letter’ succeed internationally, particularly in the Asian market,” said Culture Minister Hwang Hee. "I am confident that K-musicals will soon be on the global stage, beyond Asia."