Korean musical creators aim big

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Buoyed by success at home and hungry for recognition overseas, Korean producers and creators of musicals have for years harboured ambitions for their own shows.

Many of their works will unveil in the coming months in what many observers see as a test of their creativity, musicality and a knack for appeasing the audience.

Like in previous years, the Korean market is set for an ample supply of foreign imports, namely from Broadway or West End, potentially making their box-office battle a pretty hard one to win.

"Expect an onslaught of original Korean musicals this year," said Won Jong-won, a renowned musical critic, "as the endeavours (of Korean creators) for the past couple of years are finally coming to the stage."

The growth of Korea's musical industry, now estimated to be worth 300 billion won (S$373 million), hinges on the homegrown talent and content, he explained.

The first few months of the year, considered a low season here, saw a rush of small shows mounted as part of various programs to nurture local musical creators.

Among them, "Farinelli," a HJ Culture production, surprised both critics and audiences during its eight-day preview in January, with stunning music and solid staging.

Produced for just 600 million won in total, a third of it from a governmental fund, the show is slated for its full-fledged run in April at Universal Art Center in Seoul.

Also drawing positive reviews are "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly," based on a best-selling children's book by a local writer, and "Dwarves," conceived by Song Seung-hwan, the producer behind Korea's longest-running stage production "Nanta."

Summer will bring a clash of big-scale Korean shows, with "Arirang," arguably one of the most anticipated productions this year, competing with revivals of Korean classics at the box office.

"Arirang," a theatrical adaptation from the epic novel of the same title by Jo Jung-rae, is an ambitious, but risky bet by Seensee Company.

The original novel, set in early-1900s Korea, then a colony of Japan, is an all-time best-seller and about 16,500 pages long in 10 volumes. Renowned stage director Koh Sun-woong leads a team of local creators for its July 11 opening at LG Art Center.

Also in July, "The Last Empress," Korea's very first original musical, will mark the 20th anniversary with a revival at Seoul Arts Center. Produced by Yun Ho-jin, the musical is about the assassination of Empress Myeongseong by the Japanese in the last days of the Joseon Dynasty.

Toward the end of the year, two original shows are to hit the stage, both with an eye on global markets.

Set for a November opening, "Frankenstein" aims to repeat its phenomenal success last year.

A Chungmu Art Hall production, the musical was the most successful original Korean show in recent years, attracting about 80,000 spectators during it two-month run from March to May.

The 4 billion won production recorded nearly 1 billion won in net profits.

"'Frankenstein' is to have a Japanese run under a license deal of a major amount.

I hope it paves the way for other musicals for similar large-scale overseas deals," said Kim Hee-chul, who leads musical production at Chungmu Art Hall.

Next year, the company will unveil an even more ambitious production -- musical "Ben Hur," based on the 1959 American film.

EMK Musical Company, which in the past years led a boom of European musicals in Korea, will present its original show "Mata Hari," also in November.

Based on the life of exotic dancer Mata Hari, the production will have an international creative team topped off by Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn of "Jekyll & Hyde."