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‘Gwangju’ musical gala concert celebrates democracy in New York City

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The cast of "Gwangju The Musical" performs during the gala concert of the musical at 787 Seventh Theater in New York City on Oct. 20. [LIVE, MABANGZEN]
The cast of “Gwangju The Musical” performs during the gala concert of the musical at 787 Seventh Theater in New York City on Oct. 20. [LIVE, MABANGZEN]

“We will leave no honors, no love, no fame,

We promise to keep working on, as long as we shall live.”

The English lyrics to “March for the Beloved,” Korea’s historic anthem of democracy, pierced the air of a Broadway theater for the first time on Oct. 20.

The song was written in 1982 in commemoration of those who died on May 18, 1980, Gwangju Democratization Movement in Gwangju, a city in the southern part of the country. The original Korean musical “Gwangju,” which premiered in 2019, has refashioned the song and made it its staple piece of music.

Last month, parts of the Korean musical were performed at 787 Seventh Theater in New York City, with 15 New York-based actors and a 14-piece orchestra.

The original 160-minute show was condensed into a one-hour gala concert for its performance in the Big Apple. Several iconic numbers from the original show were selected and sung throughout the hour.

The Korean production of "Gwangju The Musical" [YONHAP]
The Korean production of “Gwangju The Musical” [YONHAP]

The original 2019 production was produced by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and Gwangju Metropolitan City to mark the 40th anniversary of the democratic movement. It has run three productions in Seoul, including its most recent run in April this year.

The musical’s story is told through the eyes of a character named Park Han-su, a member of the military under the leader Chun Doo Hwan’s military dictatorship. He is sent to Gwangju to suppress civilians protesting in support of democracy. Instead of fighting the protesters, he is ordered to spy on them and encourage them to take violent actions so that the military can have an excuse to massacre them. But after witnessing the people’s heartfelt desire for democracy, he decides to take their side and helps them.

“‘Gwangju The Musical’ has a strong storyline with profound emotions,” Andrew Rasmussen, the concert’s director, said in an email interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Just like how the musical ‘Miss Saigon’ succeeded with a non-Western story, ‘Gwangju’ can see the same success.”

He continued, “[Before the show], I wasn’t familiar with the Gwangju Democratization Movement, but I got to learn about it because of the musical and found it very new and moving. It was a story in a different culture yet carried universality.”

The cast of "Gwangju The Musical" performs during the gala concert of the musical at 787 Seventh Theater in New York City on Oct. 20. [LIVE, MABANGZEN]
The cast of “Gwangju The Musical” performs during the gala concert of the musical at 787 Seventh Theater in New York City on Oct. 20. [LIVE, MABANGZEN]

Some 500 people, including the show’s related staff and audience members, attended.

Musical producer Rob Laqui was among the audience and gave a positive review of the show, saying that “the fact that the show is based on real historical events doubles the emotions” and that “with more workshops like this one, it can open on Broadway with a solid show.” Laqui is best known for producing the musical “A Strange Loop,” which opened on Broadway in April.

"Gwangju The Musical" is being promoted on a billboard at Times Square in New York City. [LIVE, MABANGZEN]
“Gwangju The Musical” is being promoted on a billboard at Times Square in New York City. [LIVE, MABANGZEN]

With more original Korean productions such as dramas, movies, and K-pop receiving global attention, local musicals are garnering interest around the world as well.

More musicals produced in Korea are selling their licenses every year. The country’s sci-fi musicals such as “Perhaps a Happy Ending” (2016) and “You and It” (2020) are faring especially well across the border, each having been staged in the state of Atlanta, and in Japan, and Taiwan, respectively.

The ongoing crime sci-fi musical “Human Court,” which revolves around an artificially intelligent robot who is called into court for killing its owner, sold the show’s license to China, France, Germany, Belgium, and Sweden. The show runs through Dec. 4 at Daehakro Art One Theater in Jongno District, central Seoul.

Musical adaptations of Korean dramas are seeing popularity abroad as well. The musical version of the 2019 tvN drama “Crash Landing On You” is wrapping up its run in southern Seoul’s COEX Shinhan Card Artium next week, but is set to open again in Japan.

Popmusic and T2N Media, which hold the copyright for the musical adaptation, gave exclusive rights to the musical to the Japanese television station Fuji TV. The same show will be performed by Japanese actors, T2N Media said in an earlier press release.

ENA’s “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is also set to be turned into a musical. EMK Musical Company, which is producing the show, said that it has received inquiries about the show’s license even though it is still in its beginning stages.

BY NA WON-JEONG [kjdculture@joongang.co.kr]