Have you ever watched a musical, non-verbal performance, or play in Korea? You may be familiar with the Korean wave (alternatively known as hallyu), have a keen interest in K-pop and K-drama, have travelled to Korea often for cheap beauty buys, do some occasional sightseeing, or have gotten a taste of authentic Korean food, but have you heard about the K-performance scene in Korea?
The revival of the performing arts scene is catapulting Seoul into a hub for the arts. And by arts, we are not just talking about musicals, non-verbal performances, and plays, but something all-encompassing including mimes, pansori (commonly referred to as Korean opera), masked dance, puppetry, and more. With theatres and art halls of varying capacity littered all around Seoul – some 160 theatres and live-cafes around Daehak-ro alone – it is not hard to find one within the vicinity you are in, where you can pop by and just indulge in a random performance. Having a vibrant and ever-growing K-performance scene, it is also not uncommon to spot hundreds gathering around Marronnier Park, the centre of Daehak-ro, for free live acts and dance performances – more so during the weekends or when a festival is going on.
Having a keen interest in all things art, and being a fan of theatre performances, this is not my first time watching a musical in Korea. But just like my first ever show, every single performance brings about a brand new experience. On my most recent trip, I had the chance to catch three musicals – Only You, Finding Mr. Destiny, and 1446 – and even till now, when I think back, I am still in awe.
Only You features the life-journey of a married couple living in Gyeongsang-do province from their fifth year of marriage to their 37th year together, experiencing the ups-and-downs every couple goes through – small arguments like one about saving a mere 50 cents, their moods that change just like the seasons, daily fights that never seem to end, when marriage life is mundane with no ‘I love you’s, worrying over their only daughter, everyday familial squabbles, and sticking together till it is time to say ‘goodbye’.
With an estimated capacity of just 200 seats, the theatre in which Only You was performed in was cosy and ideal since you can catch all the action happening right before you, enabling the audience to easily step in the shoes of the characters. More than a musical, the intimate setting draws the audience’s attention, and it’s easy for them to get into the story.
If you are looking for some light-hearted family fun, you’ll be captivated by Only You – a musical drama that audience can relate and connect to as they relive their memories with K-pop hits of the good ol’ 90’s. With topics close to everyone’s hearts such as love, marriage, and family, this bubbly and delightful musical is suitable for all ages, and is sure to tug on your heartstrings while you take a trip down memory lane to the 1990’s.
Venue: Daehak-ro JTN Art Hall 3
Performance Dates: Open Run
Ticket Price: All seats – 50,000KRW
Finding Mr. Destiny
It is time to bring back the excitement and heartache of first loves with Finding Mr. Destiny (also known as Finding Kim Jong-wook). Join Ji-woo’s search of her first love, whom she had met by chance on a flight to India seven years ago. Having rejected multiple eligible suitors introduced by her father, Ji-woo is forced by her father, who fears that she will end up alone, to seek the help of an agency that specialises in tracking down first loves. Despite having no information other than a name: Kim Jong-wook, Gi-joon is determined to complete his first job, even if it means that he needs to track down every single Kim Jong-wook in Korea. As Gi-hoon and Ji-woo go on a whirlwind adventure in search for her first love, Gi-hoon finds himself falling in love with his client instead.
Finding Mr Destiny takes you through a cute and endearing storyline that focuses on Ji-woo’s search of her first love, whom she only has a name to along with sweet memories. After all, people do say that it’s hard to forget your first love! However, this is also where the story gets interesting, for is a first love truly the one you’re destined to be with or could it perhaps be the one who goes on a journey with you and helps you find yourself in the process?
My favourite character in the musical is definitely the chameleon-like “multi-man” who transforms into approximately 20 totally different characters – including a materialistic ex-girlfriend, a happy taxi driver, a quirky tour guide, a rigid father/colonel, a hyperactive club DJ, and an impatient airport staff – during the 110 minute-long show. This actor really steals the show, and the audience loves it whenever he appears, for each of his characters bring lots of laughter with them. His quick yet perfect transformations is another reason the audience is highly entertained throughout, and he even engages them on several occasions. Taking on multiple roles is in itself no easy feat, but he really brought out the essence of each role and portrayed them extremely well. My anticipation even grew and I found myself eager to see what he’s appearing as next. He is definitely the mood-lifter that gels the plot together and the reason why I would want to catch this musical again!
With the small and intimate setting of Culture Space NU, and a musical this fun and heartwarming, it is not hard to find a connection with the characters and their interwoven stories. The catchy songs were a bonus that help propelled the story as well. So if you are looking for something light-hearted to do during your trip to Korea, you should definitely end your day with Finding Mr. Destiny.
Fun Fact: Due to the resounding success of the musical, Finding Mr. Destiny was adapted to a Korean movie – featuring Gong Yoo and Im Soo Jung – in 2010 and sold 1,113,285 tickets.
Finding Mr. Destiny
Venue: Daehak-ro Culture Space NU
Performance Dates: Open Run
Ticket Price: All seats – 45,000KRW
Set in 1446, the story focuses on the struggling life of Korea’s greatest king, Sejong. The musical showcases some of his achievements – not just the creation of Hangul (Korean alphabet), but the results of Sejong’s relentless quest for scientific understanding – such as documenting Korean weather patterns and developing a Korean calendar.
The idea of commending someone’s achievements for a musical may seem like a pretty dull and boring affair, yet 1446 surpasses all expectations because it is everything but that. It has plenty of dramatic tension – with Sejong facing hostility, opposition, and rivalry in almost every scene. While there was a lot of history packed into a running time of 165 minutes, with only brief mentions of certain events, the narration managed to fill in the gaps well enough for the audience to understand what’s happening.
I honestly went in with zero expectations as history is not my cup of tea and was even worried that I might be lulled to sleep, but 1446 completely blew me away in terms of the epic and majestic stage production, intricate stage costumes, and perfectly arranged original music composition which well utilises Korean traditional musical instruments. The music and songs not only tell the reality of life stories but also bring out the highs and the lows, and the subtle nuances between. The musical was so captivating that I was thoroughly impressed and left in awe.
Even if you are not a history buff or a fan of historical settings, the fast pace of the musical keeps you on the edge of your seat as you anticipate what goes on scene after scene. Besides, the live orchestra was simply brilliant as well.
The thought of catching a historical epic musical in Korea may not have crossed the minds of many, but you should definitely give 1446 a shot.
Fun Fact: 1446 was the year in which the creation of Hangul (Korean alphabet) was completed.
Venue: National Museum of Korea Theatre Yong
Performance Dates: 5th October 2018 – 2nd December 2018
Ticket Price: 50 – 100,000KRW (depending on which category of seats you get)
It is interesting how the key to success for long running musicals by small theatre productions (such as Only You and Finding Mr. Destiny with only three or four cast members) are attributed to easy-to-follow storylines, timelessness (as the years go by so that people can still relate to the story), and humour! Despite being small stage performances, these are the musicals that touch the audience’s hearts for a long time, since the topics touched on are highly relatable. As for musicals on a larger scale (like 1446), in addition to having a wonderful cast, the magnificent stage set-up, the delicate props, the intricate outfits, and how well-timed the changing of sets were, are just a handful of aspects that caught my attention and left me breathless every single time. I still find it amazing how the attendance at the shows (be it at the small or big venues) are usually full, even if it is held on a weekday afternoon.
If you’ve been wanting to catch one of the many K-performances offered, the best time is during the months of September and October, where the yearly Welcome Daehak-ro Performing Arts & Tourism Festival is held. Organised by Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), the 2018 edition of the festival runs from 28th September (Friday) to 31st October (Wednesday), featuring a total of 41 performances, including musicals, plays, and popular non-verbal performances Nanta and Jump.
During the month-long festival, K-performances are offered up to 60% special discount for tickets sold onsite at the Welcome Daehak-ro Ticket Box located at Daehak-ro Marronnier Park. Information on performances for foreigners are provided as well so if you are unsure of which performance to catch, you can head over for more information first.
Welcome Daehak-ro Ticket Box
Period: 28th September 2018 to 31st October 2018
Opening Hours: 1PM – 8PM (closed on Monday)
You can also get your tickets via Interpark although the discounts do not apply when purchased online.
Worried about the language barrier and not being able to fully understand the K-performances? Fret not as there are nine titles – Only You, Finding Mr. Destiny, Laundry, Love Comes with the Rain, 1446, Oh! While You Were Sleeping, The Art of Seduction, TOCTOC, and Line1 – that actually provide subtitles for foreigners in English, Mandarin, and Japanese. Depending on the venue, you will be given either a smart tablet, on which you can choose the language of your choice, or the subtitles will be screened on the two sides of the theatre. The only downside to this though, is the need to divert the attention to the translation and not being able to fully enjoy the show, missing certain details here and there. That would definitely give us the perfect opportunity to head back to Korea to watch them again so as to see what we may have overlooked, and sometimes watching a second time means you get to experience them all over again and maybe even feel differently about them!
For more information about the festival, visit the homepage HERE! (Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese).
The biggest regret of this trip, however, was missing the Welcome Show that was postponed due to the typhoon since I was actually looking forward to catching Elisabeth and Oh! While You Were Sleeping! I will definitely be adding them to my to-watch list for my next trip!
With a wide range of genres from family to love to history, there is definitely something that caters to your interest. The three musicals that I had the chance to catch was just a sample on the platter as Welcome Daehak-ro Performing Arts & Tourism Festival has so much more to offer.
We usually remember the tune of our favourite K-dramas’ OSTs and sing along to our favourite K-pop hits. Lesser known to the world are Korea’s homegrown musicals, which are equally great productions, sometimes light-hearted and romantic, sometimes highly relatable, and other times of epic proportions, and all of them will captivate you in various ways!
It is time to ditch the usual shopping and sightseeing and go artsy fartsy! Fall for the charms of the vibrant performing arts scene in Korea and add a K-performance to your itinerary when you are next bound for Korea!
This article is brought to you by Korea Tourism Organization (Singapore).