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[YEAR-END REVIEW (3) PERFORMANCE] Bucking recession with safe-play shows

2008/12/23 Source

The local performing arts industry this year was seriously affected by the economic meltdown with supply largely exceeding demand.

There were some bright spots, like the relative success of musicals. But they did not always turn out to meet fan or expert expectations, as production companies tended to depend on stopgap measures like using idol stars for short-term gains instead of pursuing perfection or novelty.

However, some production companies found ways to buck the recession, such as venture theater company Yeongeukyeoljeon2, which attracted nearly 200,000 patrons this year despite an overall slump in Seoul's theater mecca, Daehangno.

Classical music, meanwhile, enjoyed a steady year. This was in big part thanks to the success of classical music-themed television drama "Beethoven Virus". According to Auction, sales of classical performances has more than doubled year-to-year since September when the drama began airing.

In the dance circle, fans were blessed with a series of visits by groups of world-renown, including the American Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet and Boston Ballet.


Amidst unsteady market conditions, some musical production companies opted to play it safe, resulting in the abundance of so-called "movicals" or musicals based on hit movies.

Considering that many people are already familiar with the plots, the success of the shows was guaranteed.

Starting with "Singles", a front runner in the market, shows like "200 Pounds Beauty" and "Radio Star" drew a lot of audiences to the theater.

"Just as theater pieces in the past used to adopt their story from myths or novels, movies now have become a good source for contemporary show's content", said Won Jong-won, a musical critic and professor at Soonchunhyang University.

Won pointed out movicals should not exist as mere revivals of the movies. Presenting original elements in the show -- such as a reorganized story or special effects -- are crucial to their success, he added.

Singers' advancement to stage

Compared to the fast-growing musical market, competent theater actors remain a rarity in Korea. One way production companies resolved the issue this year was by recruiting singers and non-theater actors.

Leading the pack of former singers who are building a successful musical career is Ok Ju-hyun ("Chicago") from former popular girl-group FIN.K.L. Choi Sung-hee, a.k.a. Bada from popular female pop group S.E.S. who is starring in "200-pound beauty", is also looking promising.

Following Ok and Choi's accomplishments, more singers, even including members of pop idol groups, made their theater debut this year.

Daesung and Seungri from boy band Big Bang appeared in the local production of "Cats" and homemade musical "Sonagi", respectively. Kangin and Kim Heechul from boy band Super Junior, one of the hottest boy groups not only in Korea but across Asia, shared the lead role in "Xanadu".

Andy and Lee Sung-jin, from boy band Shinhwa and NRG, respectively, are currently starring in "Singles". Danny Ahn from male pop group G.O.D. is also starring in the play "Closer".

Due to the idol stars' names, these shows tended to be successful in initially drawing audiences than other shows.

But from the long-term perspective, the situation is not desired.

While some singers wowed the public with their hidden talents, others were disappointing with poor performances.

"Xanadu" drew huge attention from Super Junior's fans prior to the show's opening, but turned out to be a flop. Viewers were disappointed at the two idol stars' awkward acting and singing, which stemmed from lack of rehearsing.

Alongside their performance, their occasional appearance -- about once a week -- was also a disappointing factor.

The case for Dae-sung in "Cats" was similar. Although he gave an impressive performance playing Rum Tum Tugger, the sexy rebellious cat, it was simply hard for fans to catch his show.

Still, it is true that theater acting can improve the profile of some stars, said Won.

"But stars have to be able to bring something that enhances completeness of the show, rather than relying on name values", Won stressed.

Unanticipated success of Yeongeukyeoljeon2

Yeongukyealjeon2, the second season of the theater venture group, led by veteran actor Cho Jae-hyun, was one of the few companies that survived the slump at Daehangno.

Not only did the company survive, but it also was an unprecedented success in an industry which has long suffered from a small audience size.

"We've drawn more than 180,000 people to our shows so far, with our average seat occupation rates being more than 90 percent for each piece", said a spokesperson for Yeongeukyeoljeon.

Their success in large part is attributed to casting A-class TV and movie actors including Hwang Jung-min, Han Chae-young and Go Soo, which made the company and their work become something of a sensation.

The second season of the group presented a line-up of 10 plays, including hit works like "Educating Rita", "Night Mother" and "University of Laughs". The performances were approachable to a wide range of fans, rather than new or experimental.

Yeongeukyeoljeon is also said to have contributed to the popularization of plays among the younger audience, dispelling the stereotype that theater is too serious for them.

Content-wise, they received criticism that, despite the glamorous cast, the pieces did not differentiate from their previous versions.

'Beethoven Virus' boom

The mega-hit TV Drama "Beethoven Virus" became the hottest buzzword in the entertainment industry this year, creating an unexpected classical music boom.

"Beethoven Virus", which centers around a talented but seemingly stony-hearted conductor, was noted for popularizing Beethoven's works, in particular. The drama's original sound track alone sold around 60,000 copies.

Performances by young classical artists also drew a wider range of fans to concerts.

The concert of the second season of chamber music project, Ensemble DITTO, was one of the most highlighted ones.

The ensemble, which consists of six instrumentalists including popular Korean-American violist Richard Yongjae O'Neill and Korean pianist Lim Dong-hyuk, was acknowledged for attracting young people to classical concerts, although it was evaluated by some as commercial.

By Koh Young-aah

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