Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Plucking the Golden Star with a Golden Ratio
Not long ago, I had gone to the Olympic Gymnastics Stadium in order to attend <Kim Junsu’s Musical Concert>. The man in question had only a single musical under his belt yet his musical concert was packed with a sea of fans. As you might have guessed, Kim Junsu is Xia Junsu of the idol boyband TVXQ with whom any young Korean will be familiar. He opted for his real name instead of his stage name when he played the lead role for the Austrian musical <Mozart!> in its Korean premiere at Sejong Center. He also happened to set a record by selling out the entire theatre for every one of his shows.
The only other time an actor made such a splash by selling out tickets was back in 2004 with Jo Seungwoo in <Jekyll & Hyde>’s first run. He caused a ticket frenzy by following it with appearances in <Hedwig and the Angry Inch>, <Rent>, <Man of La Mancha> etc pushing musical theatre itself into the mainstream arena as well as making it clear for any dunce to realize that star casting was key in creating a box office hit. What should one make of Kim Junsu’s Tsunami-like box office power then, which easily crushes Jo Seungwoo’s? Has musical theatre struck on a gold mine that can catapult itself beyond mainstream culture?
What Makes Kim Junsu’s Debut Stand Out
It would be wrong, however, to put the consecutive hits of Kim Junsu’s <Mozart!> and musical concert on equal footing with the recent casting rush for idol stars. In fact, the correct way to view his phenomenal success would be to say it was possible only because it was Kim Junsu. First of all, Kim was the key member in TVXQ, an established pop legend not just in Korea but throughout Asian pop culture. On top of that, he exhibited great work ethic as an actor and self-possession as an artist despite it being his first musical. The decision to cast Kim in <Mozart!> was actually not there from the beginning but made later on by chance when the production went through an additional casting process. In a production that would really showcase the lead role, his image as a tormented artist removed from the everyday world made Kim a good fit to play the musical’s protagonist. Moreover, the sheer rarity of a chance to see him on stage while he was embroiled in legal battle, as the members of TVXQ split in two, immediately made it the hottest issue in pop culture.
On the other hand, <Kim Junsu’s Musical Concert> provided a new experience for both Xia Junsu’s existing fans and patrons of musical theatre. The theme of the concert was communication between genres and its structural essence could be be boiled down to ‘finding the golden ratio.’ What could have been a Kim Junsu one man show came with the subtitle ‘Levay and Friends’ and turned out to be a gala concert with a diverse program including highlights from <Mozart>, showcase stages of <Elisabeth> and a special appearance by Sylvester Levay and European musical star Uwe Kröger. Kim Junsu yielded his one man show to provide stage time for the two European masters as well as to Korean musical actors; as Kim took on a role that was more like the show’s host, the concert was able to serve a larger cause. The concert ended with Junsu singing a song specially written for him by Levay, accompanied by the composer’s piano playing. The fan frenzy that erupted for the encore stage, where Kim performed the Korean version of ‘Intoxication’ (a single off his first solo album) for the first time, was also the result of finding that golden ratio.
No Star, No Show
No one will refute the fact that idol groups dominate current Korean pop culture. Using their pop activities as a base, they are branching out into acting and musicals. And musicals have historically been an art form that sought profit by producing stars that
the public want. In <42nd Street>, a musical that gives a backstage perspective on Broadway, the character Julian Marsh states a timeless universal truth, “without a star, there’s no show.” It then naturally follows that the industry will fall into a structure where an idol star loved by the public can become its savior.
The Korean musical theatre industry has hitherto strictly relied on domestic audiences, particularly young women in their 20s~30s. Marketing strategies that work for Broadway or the Westend, where over 50% of the audience pool are middle-aged, are powerless in Korea. This is because Seoul has yet to achieve the stature of a tourist hot spot that New York and London enjoy. The reason we can attract foreign audiences despite this limitation is thanks to the power of Hallyu stars.
If artists who have talent, international recognition and a diverse fanbase like Kim Junsu continue to appear on the scene, there is a chance they will become the foundation of a new marketing strategy that will help uncover a goldmine in the form of a Korean Broadway. That, however, if up to the ticket-buying public to dissect and determine.
Pop culture critic, Cho Yongshin