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Same Song, New Words Korean-language musicals bring the foreign and familiar to New York
BY MARK BLANKENSHIP

There’s an avalanche of Korean-language musicals hitting Manhattan. 

Well, relatively speaking. America’s been sending tuners to Korea for years—everything from Altar Boyz to The Lion King—but Korea rarely gets to return the favor. This week, however, New Yorkers can see not one but two musicals featuring Korean artists and songs.

Playing October 1-4 in the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), My Scary Girl, performed in Korean with English supertitles, could be the Asian answer to The Toxic Avenger Musical and Evil Dead The Musical. Like those Off Broadway hits, it uses irony, slapstick, and romantic comedy to turn a disturbing story—about a professor who discovers his girlfriend is a serial killer—into a breezy good time.

Meanwhile, Days and Nights, now playing Off-Off Broadway at La Mama ETC, takes its inspiration from a literary legend. The first act is a chamber opera performed in English by Korean classical singers, and it’s based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Doctor,” about a physician visiting a dying boy who may be his son. Act Two has a completely different sound. Inspired by Chekov’s story “The Joke,” about a man remembering his first love, it intersperses English-language scenes with Korean pop songs, performed by a Korean and Taiwanese cast.

So who’s the audience here? Koreans and Korean-Americans are a natural fit, of course, but can other patrons find something familiar in a foreign show?

Byungkoo Ahn, who adapted and directed Days and Nights, feels the music makes the production accessible. “That’s why I’m interested in opera and musical theatre,” he says. “The melodies are beautiful, and they tell the story. I want the audience to feel like there isn’t a language barrier.”

It’s also no accident that Ahn adapted short stories by a globally beloved writer. “I wanted to give Asian-American and Asian actors an opportunity to show their work to mainstream audiences, which means telling universal stories. A story from Chekhov can speak to all of us,” he says.

In fact, Ahn, who was born in Seoul but received his M.F.A. in directing from UCLA, stresses that he wants to avoid material that feels too rooted in Korean culture or the specifics of Korean-American life. “Even I am not interested in plays about generational conflict or immigration family stories,” he says. “Why would somebody without an Asian background be?”

The creators of My Scary Girl, however, hope Americans find universal qualities in a very Korean tale. The show is based on a popular Korean film, and while an American composer, Will Aronson, wrote the score, the book and lyrics are by Korean playwright Kyoung-Ae Kang. She makes references to Korean culture that most New Yorkers won’t understand.

Of course, locals will probably find their own meaning in the story. Before it premiered in Korea last year, My Scary Girl was developed in the United States, and Kang was startled by the response.

“There are some violent scenes in the show, and when we workshopped it in the States, the American audience burst into laughter,” she says. “However, my collaborator told me it was probably because of the sudden change of genres from romantic comedy to action. I was surprised at the different sense of humor between the two countries.”

Still, some moments transcend nationality. “We have a scene where the main character is struggling not to kill a guy, so she’s chopping up a watermelon while the guy is taking a shower,” Kang says. “Since she is an especially strong and quirky character, people seem to be attracted to her.”

Isaac Hurwitz, NYMF’s executive director, embraces the fact that My Scary Girl will challenge ticket buyers. “Part of the experience of festival-going is exploratory,” he says. “We wanted to provide people with an opportunity to explore more aspects of what musical theatre means, and this surprisingly romantic comedy about a serial killer is a great way to do that.”

It could also be a sign of the festival’s future. My Scary Girl is the first participant in a production exchange between NYMF and the Daegu International Musical Festival (DIMF) in Korea. My Scary Girl premiered at DIMF in 2008, and next year, a show from this year’s NYMF will be selected for a full production at DIMF.

Hurwitz argues that foreign-language musicals deserve a more prominent place in New York. “We don’t want musical theatre to become a museum genre,” he say. “The more things we can throw into the mix, the more voices, then the better it will be for musical theatre and musical theatre fans.”

 

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor