K-Content News

Korean musicals shine brighter as domestic market grows
  • May 28, 2021

Korean musicals shine brighter
as domestic market grows

Updated : 2021-05-27 17:46

By Park Ji-won

An office worker who asked to be named only by her surname of Choi said that she became one of the avid watchers of the Korean musical, "Marie Curie." She watched it twice.

"I wanted to discover if there are any differences in the two different versions of the same musical, as they feature different lead and supporting actors. This explains how I became a two-time watcher of the show," she said.

Choi is a well-prepared audience member. She purchased the necessary goods ― such as collectible binoculars developed by a local production house ― to enjoy the musical.

Musicals have emerged as a popular pastime for culture-loving Koreans, with tickets for several musicals getting sold out minutes after they went on sale online.

"Marie Curie" revolves around the Polish physicist who won the first Nobel Prize, against all odds. The musical portrays her overcoming various adversities as a female scientist and immigrant. After its premier in February, Ock Joo-hyun, an A-list musical actress, fell in love with the show and asked the production company to recruit her as the lead in the next run. Her request got the nod from the production company. "Marie Curie," featuring Ock as a lead actor, resumed in July in a larger stage with 700 seats. It swept the 5th Korean Musical Awards by clinching five awards there.

The triumph of "Marie Curie" shows how musicals developed by local production houses have begun to appeal to the hearts and minds of Korean musical lovers, amid the popularity of licensed musicals. Musicals that were developed by production houses in the United States or the United Kingdom still dominate the market, but the popularity of locally produced musicals is on the rise.

Licensed musicals accounted for a market share of 67 percent (116.6 billion won) in 2016 but declined to 48 percent (35.7 billion won) in 2020, according to the latest data accumulated by the Korea Arts Management Service based on ticket sales via Interpark. The cumulative data was been revealed recently for the first time. However, Korean musicals accounted for a market share of 26 percent (45.5 billion) in 2016, increasing to 36 percent (26.7 billion won) in 2020. The popularity of Korean musicals is not a one-time thing, as their market share is steadily on the rise.

Korean theatrical performances owe their success to the premium Broadway and Edinburgh shows that have fascinated Korean audiences for decades.

"The Phantom of the Opera" became a game changer. The world-famous musical, based on the 1910 French novel of the same name, first hit the local stage in 2001. It became an instant hit here, drawing crowds to theaters. It attracted more than 240,000 audiences in 2001 and raised 19.2 billion won, while the show ran for about six months, an unprecedented figure in the musical industry.

Backed by its huge success, more licensed musicals were introduced in Korea.

After the megahit show, the market started to expand in size and quality, continuing to grow.

The popularity of licensed musicals inspired local producers to invent Korean musicals. In 2017, four out of the top 10 highest selling musicals on Interpark, the nation's largest ticket retailer, were locally produced ones: "Hero," (No. 2) "Mata Hari," (No. 3) "Ben Hur" (No. 6) and "Gwanghwamun Love Song" (No. 8).

Not only are those musicals performed in big theaters with more than 1,000 seats, but also, original musicals such as, "Maybe Happy Ending," "Me, Natasha and a White Donkey" and "Redbook," that were staged in small- and medium-sized theaters, went popular. Tickets for those musicals sold out as soon as they went on sale.

Technology transfer has played a part in upgrading Korean musicals. Insiders say the growth in the field is backed by skilled performers, while the development of stages has been nurtured by working with musical staff from overseas, enthusiastic audiences with high expectations and increasing number of original shows.

"It has been thirty years since the musical genre was introduced in Korea. The entire production system has matured while working with staff from Broadway and Edinburgh in Korea. Also, Korean audiences are very passionate and not hesitant to criticize the quality of shows. Production companies have also tried to respond to the criticism to improve the performances," a musical production staff member said.

As the market has matured, more production companies are exporting original shows and joining hands with Broadway companies to invest in the production of shows and expand their foothold in the homeland of musicals.

In 2018, the musical, "Rimbaud," was co-produced by Chinese companies and released both in Korea and China. The musical, "Fan Letter," was sold to Taiwan in 2018. CJ ENM also invested $1 million in the production of "Moulin Rouge," a Broadway musical.

However, insiders also point out that there should be more large-sized musicals with high-end stage sets originally made in Korea, as well as more fostering of stage makers in order to nurture the market.

"Many original musicals are still being made for small theaters because people are afraid that the productions will fail, as they cost a lot of money to make. But to expand the size of the market, it is necessary to come up with many large-scale musicals every year, which can last for a long period of time. These days, in particular, musicals are more about how to show cutting-edge techniques on stage. We already have world-class performers, but in terms of stage sets, we are far behind the level of that of Broadway. Therefore, we need to invest in fostering staff who can make music for big stages as well as tech-savvy stages," Park Myung-sung, a chief producer from Seensee Company said. Seensee Company has been making a lot of licensed and original musicals, such as, "Billy Elliot," "Chicago," "Aida" and "Mamma Mia!" along with plays.

Park urged the government to increase support for making large stages, while stressing that producers also need to take some risks and make efforts to come up with fresh original works.

"So far, original musicals are not considered fine art and so have not been receiving government subsidies. As the government supports fine arts, state-run art centers can rent stages for free and create a supportive atmosphere, such that many production companies can make larger-scale original shows. Also, producers need to take risks and come up with more diverse original stories."