The central Seoul district of Daehangno is renowned for its small theaters in much the same way as Shimokitazawa is in Tokyo. But whereas the latter boasts teens of venues, Daehangno has upward of 140 — so really there’s no comparison.
That remarkable concentration traces back to 1975, when Seoul University relocated, leaving behind a thriving student-based culture and a large space in which a green and pleasant expanse named Maronnier Park was created. Then in 1981, after the Arko Arts Theatre was built looking onto the park, young people began opening the galleries, small theaters, cafes and restaurants for which Daehangno is now famous.
However, on a recent visit to research the roots of “The Goddess is Watching” — a musical from Daehangno that’s opening this week in Tokyo with Japanese subtitles — I was surprised, after quite a long absence, to see that musicals had taken over where straight plays formerly ruled supreme. And it wasn’t just any old Western musicals beaming out from flashy billboards, but home-grown, original works.
“In Daehangno, there are around 200 shows staged each year, and over half are original musicals,” I was told later by Yea Ju Yeol, the manager of performing-arts production at major media group CJ E&M. He added that, “Of those 200, about 10 become real hits — and almost all those will normally be original musicals.”
Just as specific events lit the small-theaters fuse in Daehangno, it was the first staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” in Seoul in 2001 that sparked the national passion for musicals.
After that, Yea explained, his company boldly brought the West End and Broadway hit “Mamma Mia!” — a so-called “jukebox show” based on the songs of Abba — to Seoul in 2003 with an all-Korean cast. Following the resounding success of that venture, it then set up an in-house musicals-production department to nurture new creators with overseas markets in their sights — and since 2006, they’ve been producing original musicals.
However, CJ E&M is just one of many players behind Korea’s love affair with musicals. Nowadays, there are translated versions of Broadway shows for fans to choose from every night, as well as large-scale productions of original works and — especially in Daehangno — whole rosters of smaller new pieces.
Standing in stark contrast to all this is Japan’s creative indifference to the genre.
After all, not only did Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” debut in Tokyo in 1983, followed by his “Phantom of the Opera” in 1988 — each just two years after their London premieres — but “My Fair Lady” graced the Tokyo stage in a full Japanese translation way back in 1963. Yet despite that long history of musicals here, and audiences flocking to see them, Japan has produced a paltry few successful originals compared with all those from Korea — where the tradition only dates from 2001.
Clearly Japan has been negligent in nurturing creators from the top down as in South Korea, where the government plays an enabling role. Hence the rapid and profitable growth there of movie-making, TV dramas, computer games and pop music — with musicals now the fifth “killer-content” branch of the nation’s highly exportable entertainment sector.
Sure enough, in the past few years several Korean musicals have been staged to acclaim in Japan with their original casts, sometimes featuring pop stars with huge fan followings. Translated versions of Korean shows with a Japanese casts are now also commonplace here, and there’s nothing unusual about Koreans being among the cast of works performed in Japanese.
The latest luminary to join this onslaught from switched-on South Korea is Daehangno-born, “The Goddess Is Watching.” Fostered since 2010 through a semi-governmental creative-support foundation, this fruit of the small-theater scene was inspired by all those movies about inmates in World War II German prisoner-of-war camps getting bored and unruly as they forget what normal life was like.
Here, though, the story is about Korean soldiers from both sides in the 1950-53 Korean War who are shipwrecked on a remote island, where — drawing on a World War II novel based on fact — they create an imaginary lady to counter their malaise. The result, as audiences here are about to find out, is nothing short of a musical masterpiece.
“The Goddess is Watching” runs Sept. 20-Oct. 5 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo. For details, call 0570-001-700 or visit www.megamisama.jp. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.