Who Is to Blame for the Ills of South Korea’s Musical Industry?

Culture

At a quarter to ten on a Friday evening, the glass door of a theater in Hyehwa, Seoul, opened, letting out a group of young women. Instead of leaving, they slowly queued just beyond the stone path that led up to the building.

They were fans of Mama, Don’t Cry, a South Korean musical that was first staged in 2010 and is now being performed for the fifth time. The fans were waiting for the actors, who are expected to come out each night after the show to greet them. It’s a mini meet-up that nobody scheduled but everyone seemed to know about.

As a musical actor held his unofficial meetup after the night’s performance, fans handed gifts, commented on his acting and took photos. (Jieun Choi/Korea Exposé)

Finally, one actor emerged from the building. Shyly, he stood and addressed the crowd of at least 50 women. The fans chimed in, commenting on today’s performance. One handed him a bouquet of flowers, another a cake. Cameras clicked incessantly. Many held their phones up to make videos.

This is an everyday occurrence in South Korea, not only at the theater in Hyehwa but wherever musicals are performed.

Supported by a passionate fandom, the South Korean musical industry has experienced explosive growth over the past two decades: ticket sales increased from $88 million in 2010 to over $180 million in 2017. Advertising for musicals pops up all over the capital. “Seoul has become a boomtown for American musicals,” wrote a New York Times reporter back in 2013, describing how the enthusiastic South Korean public has allowed even flops on Broadway to score a measure of success here.

But despite the increasing sales and avid fandom, critics say the industry has failed to develop artistically, overly depending on big-scale American and European productions it licenses to stage in South Korea.

The problem lies with local production companies that prioritize profit over quality, some say.

But many within the industry blame the fans — mostly women in their 20s to 30s — who use their purchasing power to dictate how the industry should run.

 

***

Kim Bo-min, a 19-year-old university student, was one of the women waiting by the theater door on Friday evening. That was the twelfth time she had seen Mama, Don’t Cry. Kim started going to musicals about four years ago, after following a friend to see a show.

“I go see the same musical multiple times when the show and performers suit my taste,” Kim said, adding that it’s not unusual for her to see one musical about 15 to 20 times.

Kim says the point of waiting for the actors after the performance — the unofficial meet-up — is to let them know the fans appreciate the show, and to give feedback on the minute differences between that day’s performance and those before (because many fans will have seen more than one performance).

Some fans jot down their comments and hand them to the actors along with gifts, Kim said.

But the real feedback happens online, anonymously, in a theater-focused forum on DC inside, one of South Korea’s most popular online communities. There, fans share reviews, comments and gossip about anything and everything related to musicals.

What seems like a benign forum for fans to gather virtually is no small matter to the industry, according to an assistant director who’s worked in South Korean theater for five years.

“When an actor says or does something mildly misogynistic or wrong, no matter how small, that goes on the forum. There’s a tendency for fans to embark on an over-the-top witch hunt. I’ve heard fans say they will boycott [the actor’s show] because of this or that. I find that scary,” Lee said.

Lee didn’t want to disclose her full name for fear of retribution, not just against herself but the colleagues working with her.

“Musical fans wield a lot of influence. Fans may remember my name and later boycott any show I am involved in,” she said worriedly.

A case in point: Last November, when musical actor Lim Jin-seop pressed ‘like’ on a photo on Instagram, angry fans started canceling their tickets for the musical he was in. The photo had been posted by Yoo Ah-in, a well-known South Korean actor who was accused of making misogynistic comments.

Fans accused Lim of supporting Yoo. As the DC Inside theater forum heated up with debates about Lim and Yoo, the musical actor quickly apologized, claiming he didn’t “approve nor know much about the incident.”

Lee, too, has personally experienced the power of the fans. Last year, after the premiere of a musical that she was working for, some fans “strongly protested” online that certain words in the show promoted hatred against women (“whore”) and the disabled (“retarded”). Sensitive to the criticism, the director took out “whore” and changed “retarded” to “fool” in the ensuing performances.

“We are not trying to defend people who use such expressions. But those expressions are used frequently in our society, so why can’t we use them [in our shows] as long as we are not condoning them?” Lee said that demands from fans to exercise censorship suffocate creative freedom. “Not every character in a show can be politically correct. Art reflects the society we live in.”

The crowd gathered after the musical on Friday night were predominantly young women (Jieun Choi/Korea Exposé)

***

To be fair, fan reactions like these aren’t unique to the musical industry. South Korean fans can be — and often are — quick to call out celebrities on what fans perceive to be inappropriate conduct.

When Kim Yoo-jung, a rising actress who has starred in a number of high-profile TV drama productions, leaned on one foot and looked at her fingernails for a few seconds during a stage greeting, some fans criticized her behavior as impertinent, haughty and disrespectful to the audience before her. Her management agency promptly announced that Kim “feels deeply sorry for causing the controversy with her attitude and disappointing her fans who have always trusted her.”

But in the musical industry, the pool of fans is much smaller than that in other industries, such as film or music, and the actual interaction between fans and performers is much more direct. That often means individual fans have more clout; their opinions spread quickly and the industry has to be especially mindful of what fans are saying.

For example, unlike Lim Jin-seop, the musical actor who eventually apologized for liking the actor Yoo Ah-in’s controversial Instagram post, one well-known rapper didn’t back down. “I wish artists don’t have to pay attention to what others say and give explanation [for doing certain things],” he wrote after being criticized for liking the same post by Yoo.

Won Jong-won, a musical critic and a professor at Soonchunhyang University, said the music industry’s dependence on fans, not critics with informed views, has to do with the short history of the genre in the country.

“The South Korean musical industry was formed around a group of dedicated fans. Before musicals became really popular, it was necessary to create a stable customer base,” Won said.

“Without customers, no matter how great the production is, there is no market.”

A musical enthusiast himself, Won created a fan club in the late 80s. Because tickets were too expensive to go see the shows casually with friends, Won gathered up fellow musical lovers, bought tickets in bulk at discount and shared reviews among themselves. Production companies and actors welcomed such fan activities and formed a close tie with them.

The South Korean musical industry took off in the early 2000s. The introduction of Broadway musicals like Rent and The Phantom of the Opera broadened the audience from a small number of hardcore fans to a bigger audience.  

But the growth of the fan base hasn’t always been good for the industry. “It’s like a coin, which has two sides,” Won said.

As more K-pop stars entered the industry, so did their fans who passionately supported their favorite singers by repeatedly coming to the shows and making comments and reviews not necessarily based on the quality of their acting or the show itself. Simultaneously, some musical actors also began to command their own fandoms. Production companies — which had already established close ties with the fans — invited fans to after parties, hosted backstage tours and even accepted their requests that specific actors be cast, according to multiple industry sources.

In between, there has been no room for authoritative critics to appear, said Won. According to one survey by The Musical, an online magazine, 70 percent of industry figures said they trusted fewer than three musical critics or journalists. More than half of musical fans didn’t know any critics’ names and the rest have only heard of four names, including Won’s. The survey also showed that there weren’t enough outlets for expert critique.

 
In every genre, more women purchase tickets than men do. But the trend stands out in musical. (Source: Interpark)

The South Korean musical fandom certainly has its own quirks. Musical goers are predominantly women in their 20s to 30s, according to Interpark, the biggest online ticket sales site in South Korea. 97.2 percent of the ticket buyers of Mama, Don’t Cry are women and 75 percent are in their 20s to 30s, according to Yes 24, a major ticketing site. The few men I saw on Friday night all seemed to be with female companions.

Such female musical fans often suffer sexism and misogyny, which are still pervasive in South Korean society. In various online communities, they are dubbed “kimchi women,” a derogatory term for women perceived to be overly materialistic, vain and pretentious. The fans are criticized for squandering their money and time on musicals — or being too obsessed with handsome male actors. One pamphlet published by a musical production company even claimed that the industry was churning out “light-hearted works targeting young women,” ruffling the feathers of many female fans (the head of that firm promptly apologized).

This stigmatization of the female musical fans may explain why most were reluctant, some even hostile, on receiving my interview requests.

“We all know being a musical mania isn’t so easy,” said Jang You-jin, a twenty-something fan living in Cheonan, a city 80 km south of Seoul.

“There’s a problem with how people who don’t enjoy musicals perceive people who do,” she said. “What hurts the most is, even within the musical industry, those perceptions exist. There are a lot of people who don’t respect the female audience.”

Fans do play a positive role in the industry. Early this year, the theater scene was hit hard by South Korea’s #MeToo movement. The #MeToo confessions by actresses revealed pervasive misogyny and sexual harassment in a still male-dominated industry — and these confessions resonated deeply with the industry’s female-dominated fandom.

It was in fact on DC Inside’s theater forum that the sexual abuse allegations against the renowned theatrical director Lee Youn-taek first appeared. Lee was accused of sexually abusing the female members of the theater troupe that he had founded and helmed, while deliberately taking opportunities away from those who rejected his advances. Lee’s initial denial infuriated women beyond the theater industry, spurring the South Korean #MeToo movement to expand to other industries.

Jang mentioned a 2016 case when fans spoke out against one male actor in the musical Mozart, over an incident that had happened seven years prior. Actor Lee Soo had paid for sex with a minor (he admitted paying for sex, but without knowing the sex worker’s age; and he wasn’t prosecuted), and irate fans collectively protested against the production company (EMK Musical Company, one of the biggest musical production companies in South Korea), the performance venue (the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts) and even the original license holder of the musical, Vereinigte Bühnen Wien in Austria.

Once the fans threatened to return the tickets, EMK Company had no choice but to drop Lee Soo from the show.

This may be seen as an example of just how much power fans wield, but Jang argues that producers don’t feed the fans’ opinions enough.

“Some producers see the female audience as fish they already caught and don’t respect us,” she lamented. “The consumers’ voices may seem loud, but the musical industry doesn’t change as quickly as other industries. People in charge of this industry don’t react as promptly to customers as people think.”

In fact, Jang’s main grievance as a fan is that South Korean production companies often pay to license old works from abroad without trying to develop enough new content. Even though some insiders accuse the fans of holding back the industry, Jang believes it’s actually the industry that holds itself back and uses fans as the excuse for not encouraging creativity.

The critic Won sided with Jang, saying the environment doesn’t allow original works to spring up. The industry may have taken off by staging acclaimed foreign productions — like Rent and The Phantom of the Opera — but even after almost two decades, such shows are performed again and again, or K-pop stars are hired to play main characters. Genuinely interesting offerings are hard to come by.

Even Lee, the assistant director who has mixed feelings about the fandom, conceded that production companies have failed to stage original shows that cater to the local audience. She thinks the audience will welcome new contents, referring to the recent success of Red Book, an original musical that tells the story of a woman who fights the social mores of the Victorian era. It was nominated in nine categories at this year’s Korea Musical Awards ceremony and received positive reviews from critics and audience alike.

But she is also aware that catering to expectations is far less risky.

“It all comes down to money,” Lee said. “You just can’t spend little to produce musicals. They are expensive.”

 

Cover image: The South Korean musical industry took off in the early 2000s. The introduction of Broadway musicals like Rent and The Phantom of the Opera broadened the audience from a small number of hardcore fans to a bigger audience.  (Source: AP)

Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.