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A Queen Pays Court to the West

South Korea's 'The Last Empress'--a rare Broadway-style Asian musical--uses a female symbol of courage to carry a message of hope, unity for a divided country.

September 06, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — Toward the end of "The Last Empress," the new Korean musical, Queen Min, in a duet with her son the crown prince, urges him to nurture his dreams, to grow "to be the strong pillar of the nation--and come out to meet the world in style!"

The controversial empress--part Evita, part Joan of Arc--is the central character in this sweeping, lavish production, which opens next Sunday in Century City at the Shubert Theater. And the exchange between Queen Min and her son reflects Korean history at a time, in 1895, when the isolationist Land of the Morning Calm was just waking up from its feudal sleep of five centuries to take its place among modern nations. The scene also parallels what this $10-million production, a rare Broadway-style Asian musical, is attempting to achieve: to demonstrate to the international musical-theater community what Koreans can do with the art form.

"We want to show the world that we have the capability of creating an artistic spectacle--singing, dancing, costumes and sets--which is a mixture of Korean music and Western production values," says Ho Jin Yun, the director of "The Last Empress" and the creative head of Arts Communications, or A-Com, the Seoul-based live-entertainment company he founded in 1993 and which is producing the musical. "We think now is a good time for us to see if we can establish a bridgehead on Broadway and then go all over the world," Yun says.

Yun's company of 50 singers and dancers (five of whom are Americans) wear more than 600 costumes in this show, which had its U.S. premiere last summer at Lincoln Center. Sung in Korean with English supertitles, the epic production played the New York State Theater for 13 performances to strong box office and good notices, and the New York Times called it "a magnificent musical--impressive by anyone's standards." The response was encouraging enough to warrant a return trip to the same theater last month, even though the initial engagement lost $1 million.

While the ratio of Asians to non-Asians in the audience was about 4 to 1 last year, Yun maintains that the numbers appear to have been more equally divided this time around. And he says that he is expecting another $500,000 loss this time (some say it could go over $1 million); yet he says that still represents an investment in the show's future. For the show's backers--a combination of private investors and corporate and government sponsors--the Los Angeles engagement is a huge leap in the show's struggle to establish itself as a franchise among touring mega-musicals.

"We jokingly call it the Korean 'Les Miz,' " says Steven M. Levy, A-Com's New York general manager, pointing out that the show is done with an Asian-style minimalism. "Stylistically, it's a cross between opera and Western theater, a crossover piece with classical overtones."

The same mix was apparent in an interview at A-Com's modest offices with Yun and the two stars of his production, Wonjung Kim and Taewon Yi Kim (no relation), who alternate singing the vocally taxing role of Queen Min. While Yun spoke in heavily accented English, the South Korean-born actresses often stepped in to interpret for him, proving themselves fluent not only in English but also in American culture, having both been based in New York for the past eight years.

Yun's familiarity with the Broadway musical began in the '80s, when he attended New York University's School of Drama, after which he returned to his native Seoul, where he continued as artistic director of the Sil-Hum Company. In 1993, he founded A-Com in an attempt to enhance South Koreans' experience of musical theater. A-Com's first production, a revival of "Guys and Dolls," was a big success by local standards. But "The Last Empress" proved to be a phenomenon in Seoul. According to Heehwan Lee, A-Com's U.S. representative, it is the only Broadway-style musical in South Korea that has ever turned a profit. The show galvanized audiences with its stirring chauvinistic anthems of a united and glorious nation and its passionate queen, whom the chorus, at one point in the musical, compares to Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Min, in the estimation of the young actresses who play the real-life figure, was a woman well ahead of her time--a commoner who agitated for an open-door trading policy and modernization, against the more conservative elements of the court of Chosun, as the country was then known. This also ran counter to Japan's imperialist designs on the country, and it led to her assassination by the Japanese in 1895.

"We are trying to relearn the lessons of history," says Yun about his choice of subject. "A hundred years ago, Korea was struggling with foreign powers all around it and now the situation is almost the same with not only Japan and Russia, but also with North Korea. The question again is what is Korea's place in the world and Queen Min is someone in our history who addresses what our contribution can be."

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