Sängerkrieg in Seoul

When I grabbed the free paper “City” on my way down to the subway, I did not expect more than a bit of distraction. Instead I ran across two pieces on upcoming musicals that seem to be worth a watch: “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Seopyeonje”.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (2007 version) by 극단 갖가지

The Sorrows of Young Werther (2007 version) by 극단 갖가지

“The Sorrows of Young Werther” (젊은 베르테르의 슬픔) is a musical-version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novel that became an early best-seller in the late 18th century. Back then, many luckless lovers followed the suicidal faith of the protagonist who (to quote the article) “takes extreme measures because of a live-shaking love.” (Hence the Werther-syndrome.)

Anyway, in its 10th revival since the premiere in 2000, the Korean musical “is expected to rise to a whole new level with a stage design perfectly recreating the German background and an orchestra playing beautiful melodies.”

Trivia: Which major Korean conglomerate that boasts a chain of fast food restaurants and a theme park has been named after the object of Werther’s desire?

“Seopyeonje” (서편제) is a recreation of the eponimous movie by director IM Kwon-taek (임권택). Pre-dating the Korean Wave, “Seopyeonje” unexpectedly became a box-office hit in 1993—surpassing one million spectators in Seoul alone—, was shown in Cannes, and has been named a major influence for a rising popular interest in pansori, a peculiar form of Korean music theatre, as well as in cultural identity in general.

Seopyeonje - The Musical (2010) by 피앤피컴퍼니

Seopyeonje – The Musical (2010) by 피앤피컴퍼니

Depicting the struggles of a group of itinerant pansori performers in times of backward-blind modernisation, the film has become a focal point in academic discussions of gender, tradition, and post-colonial nostalgia in the context of recent developments in cultural nationalism. (see, for example, Im Kwon-taek: The Making of a National Cinema, 2002.)

It seems a rather odd choice making a musical about the decline of pansori practice, given that among the performing arts Western-style musicals are generally considered most representative of the replacement of “traditions” by foreign commodities marketed on a global scale. Then again, this is a “Korean musical” (한국 뮤지컬), as is clearly indicated on the poster. Like “Werther”, a Korean “original musical” (창작 뮤지컬), “Seopyeonje” seems to be part of a movement to revitalize the musical business with stories different from the well-known Broadway classics like “Miss Saigon” or “Phantom of the Opera”.

Whether a love story from pre-romantic Germany or a more recent “national movie”—it certainly will be interesting to see if this “different” material also leads towards new aesthetic paths, like pansori recitals or German lieder side-a-side with sing-along hits typical for musicals.

Also, the casting choices might prove fruitful: The two preview articles—both signed by KIM Ri-seon (김리선), by the way—pit the main actors against each other in a kind of singing contest.

Tender Werther (Song, left) VS. Charismatic Werther (Park)

First, charisma vs. tenderness: “Park Geon-hyeong (박건형), as a Werther overflowing with charisma, and Song Chang-ui (송창의), a more gentle Werther, will fascinate in different ways when competing with each other on stage”, as a member of the production company CJ is quoted. Unfortunately, as these two actors are cast for the same role, they will never meet on stage.
The case of “Seopyeonje” is a bit more complicated. The heroine Song-hwa, adopted daughter and student of an itinerant pansori master, is triple-cast:

  • LEE Jaram (이자람), whose talent in creating amazing music theatre I have praised earlier, gained national fame as a child star and currently performs both as a pansori singer and as lead singer-guitarist of the alternative “Maybe Lee Jaram Band” (아마도 이자람 밴드)
  • “musical-diva” CHA Ji-yeon (차지연) performed in “Monte Christo”, “Queen Seondeok” (the musical, not the drama), and “Dream Girls”
  • and “short but stout” MIN Eun-gyeong (민은경) who—like Lee—is trained in traditional Korean music and was cast after a public audition.
triple main cast of Seopyeonje Musical: multi-talent Lee Jaram (이자람), "musical diva" Cha Ji-yeon (차지연), Min Eun-gyeong (민은경), trained in traditional music (from left to right)

triple main cast of Seopyeonje Musical: multi-talent Lee Jaram (이자람), “musical diva” Cha Ji-yeon (차지연), Min Eun-gyeong (민은경), trained in traditional music (from left to right)

Even if it takes quite a bit of money—tickets are around 80’000 won—, comparing these contrasting personalities performing the same role might lead to interesting insights on the ways tradition can be presented and re-presented on stages today. After all, modern musical is a twisted step-child of pre-modern pansori in the way it struggles to attract a general audience.

“Seopyeonje” will be on show at the Doosan Art Center (두산 아트센터, see the production’s webpage for details). For “The Sorrows of Young Werther” the curtain will rise again on October 22, at the Seoul Universal Arts Center (서울 유니버설 아트센터).

— 13 Aug. 2010 (金)


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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