Young, female fans ensure Korea's musical industry keeps hitting the right notes

A musical company and its audience at Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. [JOONGANG ILBO]

"It's the little changes — a slightly longer pause before the show's most iconic line or an added inflection at the end of the third number — that keeps me going back to the same musical," said Shin Jeong-won, 26, a university senior in Nowon District, northern Seoul.

“The more I watch it, the more I fall in love.”

Shin has watched the musical “The Devil” a total of 41 times since 2017. This season, which began Dec. 10, she has watched the show eight times.

Sustaining the local musical theater industry amid a global pandemic are young females like Shin who brave the elements to enjoy live performances.

A poster for the musical "The Devil" in Jongno District, central Seoul. [LEE JIAN]

According to the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System (Kopis), some 70 shows opened in March 2020, two months after Covid-19 hit the nation. Compared to 380 which opened during the same time the previous year, the number of shows has drastically dropped. But it is worth noting that the industry didn’t completely close down like on Broadway or the West End.

A handful of shows that did continue runs even saw high admission rates.

An average of 92 percent of 1,255 available seats were occupied for the whole season of “Rebecca,” which ran until February 2020, according to EMK Musical Company.

“Dracula: The Musical,” which opened Feb. 11, 2020, also filled 95 percent of its seats.

“Before Covid-19 hit, the local musical industry was seeing a rise in audiences in their 50s and 60s otherwise known as active seniors,” said Noh Min-ji, a PR manager at musical production company S&CO.

“But, those numbers plummeted along with married audiences in their 30s and 40s who used to come watch shows with their spouses and kids.”

She added that audiences in their 20s mostly filled the seats of the company’s productions especially after Covid-19.

With over half of the audience comprised of women in their 20s according to the latest demographic study by local ticket-booking company Interpark in 2021, Korea’s musical theater viewers are relatively younger compared to those of other countries.

Vice president at EMK Musical Company Kim Ji-won said that Korea’s high proportion of young audiences is a feat that other countries envy.

“A younger audience essentially indicates a brighter future for the industry because once someone is exposed to live theater, they are more likely to attend shows regularly throughout their lives, and later on, take their kids to shows too,” said Kim.

The average age of a theatergoer on Broadway during the 2018-19 season was 42.3, according to the latest data by Broadway League, a U.S. trade association for the Broadway industry. The average has hovered between 40 and 45 years old for the past two decades.

Japan is also suffering from an aging viewership as most of their audience is comprised of those in their 50s and 60s, according to Kim.

Musical theater critic and performing arts professor at Soonchunhyang University Won Jong-won interpreted that the skewed gender demographic of the predominantly female audience was a result of the changed ways of modern society.

“As women get married later and increasingly participate in the labor market, they strive to live a life with elevated quality and thus actively spend on various cultural activities such as musicals,” Won told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

A widespread characteristic among such local theatergoers in Korea is their dedication to the genre which is directly correlated with the number of tickets purchased by these individuals, especially if they like a certain show.

According to a survey conducted Interpark in January, 937 or 50 percent of the 1,884 musical theatergoers who participated answered that they had plans to watch the same show four to 10 times.

Twenty-four percent or 449 people answered that they were willing to watch the same show two to three times, followed by 220 people or 11.7 percent who said 11 to 15 times; 113 people or 6 percent who said more than 20 times; and 97 or 5.2 percent who responded 16 to 20 times.

A total of 20 people answered that they had plans to watch every single performance of the musical that they liked. Among those who answered “other” on the survey, some eye-catching comments were “until my strength allows me” and “until my bank account hits zero.”

Koreans call this act of viewing one show multiple times “nth viewing,” borrowing the mathematics’ “n” variable to denote an unspecified number of viewings, or “revolving door viewing,” which draws upon the image of a person walking in circles inside spinning doors and repeatedly walking in and out of a building.

Kim explained that for people who love this genre, multiple viewings of one show is “almost natural and inevitable.”

“Opening nights are full of frenzy and excitement while closing nights are extra emotional as the company bids goodbye to the audience, colleagues and characters they have played for the past few months. Then in the middle of productions’ runs, there are points where the company’s performance peaks,” said Kim.

“A production run of a show is a journey that the company and its feverish fans go through together.”

Back to the avid young theatergoer Shin, she said that her favorite aspect of live theater was ultimately its oxymoronic quality.

“Seeing that element of change in the same show with the same lines and the same songs — That’s what I find the most beautiful and captivating about musical theater,” she said.

Lee Ji-yeon, 30, another dedicated fan of local musicals, said that she first experienced the genre four years ago when her favorite singer Park Hyo-shin took on a lead role in the musical “The Man Who Laughs.”

Park is a famous ballad singer who rose to fame with his remake of the Japanese song “Snow’s Flower,” which was part of the soundtrack for the 2004 KBS drama “I’m Sorry, I Love You.”

“Park was absolutely phenomenal in the show, but so were the other actors, the lights, staging and the story,” recalled Lee.

“I watched ‘The Man Who Laughs’ two more times afterward and have become a regular theatergoer ever since.”

Park Hyo-shin with fans after performing "The Man Who Laughs" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Noh from S&CO said that there are many like Lee who are drawn to the genre through K-pop star castings.

“Stars like Park Hyo-sin or Kim Jun-su [former member of boy bands JYJ and TVXQ] attract many new audience members to musicals because they have such an extensive fan base,” said Noh.

In the past, there has been criticism about the star-driven castings of domestic musicals, but such views have changed as people came to recognize the importance of a dedicated and loyal fan base for a show for it to continue running, especially amid a global health crisis.

“Previously viewed as halting further progress of the industry, these individuals have been reevaluated as faithful supporters of live theater who remain undeterred even in crisis situations such as Covid-19,” said professor and critic Won.

A common characteristic among such passionate fans is that they go see the musicals alone.

According to a 2018 research by Interpark, the number of musical theater audiences who attend shows alone rose from 11 percent in 2005 to 46 percent in 2018.

Lee said that she goes to see musicals alone because she doesn’t want to burden her friends with an expensive hobby that they don’t share.

“I used to be self-conscious going to shows by myself, but now, I am completely comfortable,” she said, “and this way, I get to concentrate on the show more.”

Lee said she spends about 35 percent of her monthly income on watching musicals.

“Some people criticize me for spending too much money and others think of me as being really rich,” said Lee. “But these are unfair suggestions that are made about people like me. I work on a mid-size company’s marketing team. Musicals are my priority and I save on others things for them. I wish more people could respect that.”

Shin said that she goes to shows with people she meets on virtual musical theater communities.

“I used to go alone until I met friends on Twitter who share the same interests as me,” she said.

Korea has a very active online theater community where fans post detailed reviews of shows every night and directly communicate with actors themselves.

Before 2020, many local musical actors would hold short meetings after each performance to receive gifts, take pictures and also take acting notes from the show’s loyal fans.

“We told the actor which parts we especially liked that day as well and point out things he or she did differently,” explained Shin. “It is a way to relay our love and dedication to the show and actors.”

Some actors even held fan meets after the show in a nearby restaurant or pub and gave gifts to audience members to thank them for their support.

“Today, actor Jo [Hyeong-gyun] held a QnA session after the show with his fans for one hour and a half,” reads a comment on Instagram from 2018.

“He told us behind-the-scene happenings about the musical as well which was really interesting. I am so thankful that actor Jo took time to talk to his fans today.”

Screen capture of a beverage given out during actor Jo Hyeong-gyun's fan meet at a pub in Jongno District, central Seoui. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Jo, who played the lead role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 2018 production of “Rocky Horror Show” is one of many actors who enjoys spending time with his fans.

But since Covid, actors and fans communicate virtually via YouTube, V Live or Instagram.

“It isn’t nearly as fun as talking to the actor in person, but musical fans have made it a rule among ourselves not to wait for actors to come out after the performance,” said Shin.

“We don’t want to risk the show closing because an actor contracted the virus from a fan.”

Screen capture of musical theater actor Park Gang-hyun during a live stream with fans on V Live. [SCREEN CAPTURE]