POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 8, 2013
SEOUL » The packs of young women arrived 90 minutes early for the evening's show: "Murder Ballad," a rock musical that flopped off-Broadway in July and then opened here four months later in an all-Korean production. They wanted time to shoot smartphone video of Seoul's newest theater, built inside a shopping mall, and start scoring autographs: of actors, sure, but lighting operators and makeup artists too.
Or anyone, really, working on American musicals, whose head-spinning popularity here has changed the game for New York producers looking to extend the lives of their shows.
Seoul has become a boomtown for American musicals, with Korean and Broadway producers tapping into an audience of young women raised on the bombast of Korean pop and the histrionics of television soap operas. Ticket sales to American and European musicals, as well as to a sprinkling of Korean originals, have grown from $9 million in 2000 to an estimated $300 million this year, and a frenzy of licensing deals is underway.
Proven hits like "Wicked," "Mamma Mia!" and "Grease" have opened here this fall, but so, too, have Broadway failures like "Ghost" and "Bonnie & Clyde," challenging assumptions about taste, tolerance and translation. The quintessential New York story "Guys and Dolls," it turns out, works in Korean, so long as Miss Adelaide is played by an actress nearly 10 years older than her Nathan Detroit, to reflect the trend of older women dating younger men in Seoul.
And even with its short off-Broadway run, the four-character "Murder Ballad" found fans far away.
"I watched the New York production on YouTube and became obsessed," said Lee Joo-young, a 30-year-old researcher, speaking through an interpreter, after a recent performance. "It's so emotional and sexy and thrilling. Americans are so great at making these shows."
Audiences in London, Sco Paolo, and Hamburg, Germany, are also known for having big appetites for American musicals, but the energy and entrepreneurism in Seoul are startling. With 300 theaters already - about the same number as in New York - the city keeps building to accommodate the crush: A Methodist megachurch just built a Broadway-style house, while another 600-seat theater recently opened among barbecue restaurants. And audiences are dominated by young people, a generational contrast to the graying audiences in the West.
"Seoul has become incredibly important in the lives of many musicals, something none of us would've said or predicted a decade ago," said Judy Craymer, the lead producer of "Mamma Mia!" In 2004, Craymer joined forces with a Buddhist monk and his producing partner on the first of 12 productions across South Korea, the latest opening here last month.
"It's become this fantastic flagship for the foreign market, because Koreans travel so much to New York and London, and they care deeply about brands - like Broadway," Craymer said. "A huge amount of theater's repeat business comes from Korea; they see it on Broadway, then see it at home and so on. And, best of all, it's this huge young audience. The growth potential is enormous."
The rewards have become significant for American producers. They typically receive 15 percent of the box office gross, as well as licensing and management fees in some cases, revenue that can total millions of dollars and offset losses on Broadway.
And they see South Korea as a model for eventually doing business in an even bigger future market, China.
Ask Edward Strong, a partner in Dodger Theatricals, which is bringing another unmistakably American musical, "Jersey Boys," to Seoul for the first time in January as part of an English-language tour.
"All of Asia is a potential market for 'Jersey Boys,'" he said. "But right now, Seoul is the major market, ever since the economic recession cooled theater activity in Japan. And we want to learn from our experience in Seoul and take that knowledge elsewhere in Asia."
The strong business from young women (and plenty of young men, too) is generally attributed to the fact that Koreans in their 20s and 30s tend to earn good salaries but live with their parents until marriage. This leaves them money to spend on tickets, which cost roughly the same as in New York.
Ticket sales began to climb for American and British musicals after the unexpected success of a Korean-language version of "The Phantom of the Opera" in 2001, according to Korean producers. "Phantom" ran for seven months, a relatively long run here; most popular musicals run for a few months, shut down, then return a year or two later. Rotating like this allows fresh celebrities to be added to the casts, which fuels repeat business; stars from popular K-pop bands routinely sell out their performances and can earn as much as $50,000 a night in a musical.
As in New York, most musicals end up losing money: From 80 to 90 percent do, compared with 75 percent on Broadway. (American producers and artists are generally protected, though, as they make money from licensing fees and royalties, in addition to the box office.) But the risk has not stopped Korean producers from mounting shows in an almost harum-scarum fashion, with a "wild, wild West" mentality, in the words of the Broadway producer James Nederlander Jr. Yet worries about oversaturation loom, even as Korean producers snatch up more rights from their American counterparts.
"There is a bubble right now - too many musicals, and people don't know what to see," said Seol Doyun, who mounted "Phantom" in 2001 and is now producing the first Korean-language production of "Wicked," which is selling strongly so far.
"The interesting thing is, in Korea most bubbles don't really burst - electronics haven't burst, K-pop hasn't burst - we just grow and grow," Seol said. "People are losing money in musicals, but enough are making money that everyone still wants to be big in the market."
To the surprise of some producers here, audiences rarely fuss about the Korean translation of American musicals, no matter how odd they are. In the new production of "Wicked," the Korean translation of the anthemic "Defying Gravity" changes one memorable lyric - "It's time to try defying gravity" - into "Fly high up and get out (be free) of gravity," for the extra Korean words to keep time with the music, Seol said.
Musical comedies like "The Producers" and "Spamalot," however, have struggled at the box office here, and "The Lion King" - the biggest moneymaker in Broadway history - was not a Korean hit, possibly because it was marketed as family fare rather than as heart-tugging drama.
"More than the Japanese and Chinese, Koreans are very expressive about their feelings, and they want romance, they want to cry, they want to get very emotionally involved and root for their characters," said Park Yong-ho, a leading producer here.
Some of the young women at "Murder Ballad" said they were unfazed by the musical's sexually graphic themes and outbreak of violence, noting that Korean films and soap operas have such moments. Still, they said, there was a special thrill in seeing the seductions unfolding live. (The show places the audience in a barroom setting, where much of the action takes place.)
"It was a little difficult to perform, at first, because my character drinks and is very open-minded, and that is not really typical Korean," said Lee Ji-yeon, who plays Sara, a tempestuous New Yorker, in the musical. "I've never been to New York City, so creating a New York character was hard, too. But the audience is on my side, because everyone here is fascinated by American stories."
Patrick Healy, New York Times