Hollywood, Broadway, and Seoul: Musicals Take Off in South Korea


By Juni Kim

The 2017 Oscars, the U.S. film industry’s top awards show, will take place in the heart of Hollywood this Sunday. Among the nominated films for Best Picture, the modern musical La La Land has emerged as the clear frontrunner with its unprecedented 7 Golden Globe awards and a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. Although other critical darlings like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are in contention for Hollywood’s top prize, La La Land has already swept through much of the other film awards this season (in addition to launching a deluge of internet criticism claiming the film is merely “okay”) and it would be a major upset if it walks away without Best Picture on Sunday night.

Before La La Land was the talk of tinsel town in America, the film was first released in South Korea before all other territories and was the sixth highest grossing U.S. film at the South Korean box office last year. The musical’s generous reception should come as little surprise. South Korean audiences have taken to American musicals in recent years on both the silver screen and on stage, to the benefit of Hollywood and Broadway producers. In a country known for its melodramatic soap operas and glitzy pop groups, Western heart-on-sleeve musicals have proven to be a natural fit for Korean entertainment preferences.

Original musical films can be a tough sell for most global audiences, but South Korea has warmly received a number of them including La La Land in recent years. Irish filmmaker John Carney directed several musical films that garnered outsized box office success in South Korea. His 2014 feature Begin Again, which starred Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightly, became the most-watched independent film at the time in South Korea and brought in over a third of its worldwide gross from Korea audiences. The film’s success prompted the development of a Korean remake, which is set to star pop idol Dara of the popular girl group 2NE1. Outside the U.S., South Korea was also the highest grossing territory for Carney’s 2007 Oscar-winning film Once and last year’s Golden Globe-nominated Sing Street.

South Korean audiences also took to La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s previous feature Whiplash, which had about a third of its total foreign gross come from South Korea. Although not technically a musical, the film’s stark story of an aspiring jazz student’s struggles with his demanding teacher prominently features music, and the film’s box office success has been attributed to the plot’s cultural parallels with South Korea’s competitive and often rigorous student lifestyle.

Musical Graphic

Musicals have also been a part of South Korea’s recent trend of re-releasing Hollywood movies, which have a relatively easy path to break-even due to their low licensing costs. Previous Oscar winner Chicago and 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera both had re-releases last December despite having been out of Korean theaters for over a decade, and the latter film narrowly missed cracking the top ten films at the weekend box office when it was re-released.

The Korean appetite for musicals has also translated to the stage, where Korean productions of American Broadway musicals have flourished. With the help of adaptations of popular Broadway hits like Wicked and Grease, Korean musical attendance topped 12 million attendees in recent years, which surpasses the attendance of all other performing art genres in South Korea. Unlike the sometimes older audiences of Broadway musicals stateside, younger Koreans frequently make up the majority of musical goers in Seoul, which has attracted the attention of U.S. Broadway producers. American producer Judy Craymer, who was behind Mamma Mia!, noted, “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.”

In seeking wider audiences, South Korean productions have also integrated pop fandom into their musicals by hiring singers and soap opera stars for leading roles. In a market where musicals often struggle to break even, the draw of a K-pop idol, who could potentially bring thousands of devoted fans, can make the difference between financial success and failure. On the importance of having famous young stars in productions, South Korean producer Chang Jun-won said, “Ten years ago, five years ago, ticket sales depended on a musical coming from Broadway or London or having a Tony Award, but today, K-pop casting has become the No. 1 criteria for a lot of shows.”

Despite cultural differences, many American musicals have found a second home in South Korea. Whether seen on a movie screen or live on stage, Korean audiences have eagerly taken to musicals, and future Hollywood and Broadway productions are likely to find similar warm receptions.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Comet_Cloud2’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Graphic by Juni Kim.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.