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24 May 2010

Musical Hwarang – On Thursday I met Hyunjin in Daehangno (an area known for arts and culture) to see a musical, Hwarang. The hwarang were a youth corps in the kingdom of Shilla (57 BC – 935 AD) comprised primarily of the sons of royal or aristocratic families, and they trained both body and mind in the the arts of war and of peace. I don’t think I would have normally gone to see this, but one of my students is doing her MA thesis on musical translation (i.e., the translation of the lyrics in musicals), and this is the musical she chose as the example to which she will apply theories gleaned from examination of existing translated musicals. A couple of weeks ago she gave me two tickets to the musical so I could see it for myself (my other students are doing translations of works of fiction and only have to provide me with copies of the originals—I think this student may have gotten the short end of the stick here).

“When the stage lights came up and the actors took the stage and began singing, though, I could tell that something was different.”

The theater was located in the basement of its building and was fairly small—at full capacity, it would probably have held somewhere around two hundred or so people (maybe three hundred maximum). The audience that night numbered at a little over a hundred, I think. The stage was also small and the set was very sparse. In fact, the set was simply a backdrop with five panels that revolved on central axes, showing a city gate on one side and the inside of the gate (or possibly the inside of a building) on the other. At the start of the musical, each panel was also adorned with a square shield featuring a dokkaebi (a mythical Korean creature somewhat like an ogre), although I didn’t realize they were shields until later on.

During my semester in London I had seen much smaller theaters and stages, not to mention much sparser sets. In fact, some of my favorite productions were not those with elaborate staging and sets, but the simpler productions. I can remember one in particular, a very small production of Hamlet that I saw in a small room above a Greek restaurant in Soho. The entire room was probably smaller than the stage for Hwarang, and the “stage” area was just one end of the room. Twenty or thirty of us were crammed into that room, and the actors only had about a meter or so of stage to work with, but it was one of the most memorable shows I saw that entire semester—not in spite of the size, but perhaps because of it. That small theater in Daehangno had a similar feel to it, but I didn’t really know what to expect.

The first and last musical I saw in Korea was The Last Empress, and that was quite some time ago (at least ten years ago). I remember hearing a lot about it—what an ambitious work it was, how it was performed around the world, etc. Before we went to see it I read some reviews in American papers, and although I don’t remember exactly what they said, I do remember that they all seemed to comment on how amazing the costumes were. This concerned me—a musical that is most notable for its costumes is like a girl who is very pretty but has absolutely no personality.

Still, we had planned on seeing it, and I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, no one goes to a show hoping that it will be bad. And it was not, in fact, bad. But it wasn’t really that good, either. Like the reviews said, the costumes were beautiful. The sets were also quite elaborate. The story itself was based on a novel by a well-known Korean author, who drew his subject matter straight from a famous incident in Korean history, so there was no problem there. The problem was with the music. It sounded very much like whoever wrote it was trying to emulate a Broadway musical, but although they may have been able to imitate the format, the songs themselves were quite forgettable. I don’t remember much of the musical, but I do remember the last scene—not because the music stirred my heart, but because it was impressive how completely it failed to stir any sort of emotion in me at all. I can still see it in my memory—the main characters in neat ranks on stage, taking slow, triumphant steps forward as the music swelled, pledging to overcome the current tragedy and hope for a bright future. And all I could think of was how stilted and awkward it all felt.

I wondered if it was just me. Perhaps there was something that I just could not connect to, not being Korean. But when I asked Hyunjin about it, she said she was unimpressed as well. She pointed out two critical flaws: the music was uninspired and uninspiring, and the acting was poor. The latter problem was caused by the fact that the lead actors and actresses were all professionally-trained singers, but they weren’t professionally-trained actors. Thus they sang very well, but they were very stiff and unnatural on stage. In the end, The Last Empress was not, as I had feared, a pretty girl with absolutely no personality. She had a personality, and was very prim and proper, but she had no soul. She was like the girl who does everything expected of her in an attempt to please everyone, but is then baffled when she’s not popular.

This was my only prior experience with Korean musicals, so I think I could be forgiven for not expecting too much from Hwarang. How could anyone possibly write a musical worth watching with the hwarang as their subject matter? After seeing the theater and the stage, I was half-expecting a low-tech reprisal of the over-earnest disappointment that was The Last Empress. But I owed it to my student to see it through, and I decided to try my best to enjoy it. When the stage lights came up and the actors took the stage and began singing, though, I could tell that something was different. The first thing I noticed was that the actors could not only sing, they could act as well. And when the first number was finished, I was a little surprised (and not a little relieved) to realize that I wasn’t going to have to try very hard to enjoy it after all.

Despite the very humble set, despite the lack of props (which consisted of five shields, five wooden swords, and five bows), and despite the fairly simply costumes, Hwarang was a truly entertaining musical. For all its beauty and show, The Last Empress had no soul, but Hwarang was pretty much the opposite.

It may seem a tautology, but music is the lifeblood of a musical—if the music is not memorable, the musical will not be memorable either. This was one area in which Hwarang succeeded, not because it attempted to imitate a Broadway musical, but because it felt confident enough to be itself. The treatment of the subject matter was very important as well. The tragic story of Empress Myeongseong is nearly a myth (by which I mean a “sacred tale”) in Korea, and there’s really no way to treat it but with the utmost reverence and respect. I had feared that Hwarang would take the same route, but fortunately the writers added a healthy dose of comedy to the mix (the dialogue is witty, and not a few light-hearted jabs are taken at the homoerotic possibilities of an all-male youth corps) and focused on the characters rather than on the setting. One of the characters was indeed a legendary hwarang (Giparang, the subject of a famous poem), but all five of the characters were treated as real young men with real dreams and real fears. The story may have been set over a thousand years ago, but it chose to set aside great historical issues in order to deal with basic human issues that still have relevance today.

The story was not without its flaws. For example, one character turns his back on the hwarang training and leaves the group, but he returns at the very end to help the group successfully complete their exhibition of skill. Given how much he struggled with the training the entire time, this struck me as a little too neat and tidy. But my quibble here is minor—this particular character’s return may have been neat and tidy, but it was not unexpected nor unwelcome. And the story struck just the right balance between humor and contemplation, being neither too silly nor too serious. There was even one scene where the hwarang are given baskets of cosmetics to learn the importance of taking care of their appearance. Such a scene already has plenty of potential for humor, but shortly after the scene began the actors picked up their baskets and went into the audience, where they asked some girls (who made up the majority of the audience) to put the makeup on for them. This breaking of the fourth wall is something The Last Empress could never have done, but something I had seen used to great effect before. When I was in London, I went to see a musical called Five Guys Named Moe (in fact, my brother Brian was with me at the time; I wonder if he remembers it), and during one of the intermissions the actors came down off the stage and started a conga line that everyone in the theater joined—and it was a big theater. But breaking the fourth wall is not something that has been borrowed from Western tradition—interaction with the audience has always been a part of Korean traditional drama (such as pansori and the mask dances), and it was good to see it again in a modern form.

I was impressed enough with the music that, after the show ended, I bought a CD of the OST (and, of course, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a copy, since my student would be translating some of the songs—this was part of my rationalization, at any rate). When we left the theater, the five actors were standing outside greeting and talking with some of the audience members, so I had each of them sign the CD booklet. Then, as we made our way to the bus stop, I told Hyunjin that I thought, despite the vast differences in costumes, set design, and everything else, Hwarang was a far better musical than The Last Empress. She quickly agreed, noting that first and foremost the music was far better. It’s been four days now, and even though I haven’t listened to the CD yet, I still have some of the songs stuck in my head. On the other hand, an hour after seeing The Last Empress, I could not remember a single number.

I don’t mean to be too critical of The Last Empress. It was, after all, the first original Korean musical. It was very ambitious and well done in many respects, and it marked an important point in the history of Korean drama. I only mention it here to emphasize how much Korean musical theater has developed over the years, and how delighted I was to have my expectations turned upside down. For the longest time I had simply written off original musical theater in Korea, but now I think I’m going to have to start paying closer attention to it.

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