Producers are turning to leading K-pop bands and targeting overseas audiences in a bid to reinvigorate Korea's over-saturated musical market, which is estimated to be worth W250 billion but is feeling the pinch as supply outpaces demand.
Japan, which boasts the largest market for musicals in Asia, is emerging as Korean producers' prime target as they aim to capitalize on the popularity of K-pop stars in the neighboring country.
Korean girl group Kara saw their latest album shoot to the top of the Oricon Weekly Single Chart in the first week of its release in April. Now the band's lead singer is ready to flood Japanese senses with her acting and singing talent as she prepares for her musical debut in the country.
"Kara's leader Park Gyu-lee will star in Osaka from October to November," Show Note, which produces the musical "200 Pounds Beauty," announced on Wednesday. This is the first time that a leading star of the Korean Wave will make a musical debut in Japan rather than at home.
"200 Pounds Beauty," a musical adaptation of the film of the same title, is a romantic comedy that has enjoyed great success since it premiered in 2008. The producers are planning an Asian tour across Japan and China from this fall until spring of next year.
In order to make a significant dent in the Japanese market, however, the producers felt a Korean Wave star was needed, and Kara apparently leapt at the chance to expand her performing repertoire.
Industry figures are now describing the partnership between Korea-produced musicals and Korean Wave stars as a marriage made in heaven, especially given the support that Japanese fans have already shown for both. "200 Pounds Beauty," starring Jessica from Girls' Generation, "Goong," featuring TVXQ's U-Know Yun-ho, and "Mozart!" in which JYJ's Kim Jun-su made his musical debut, attracted a great number of Japanese.
Tour operators cottoned onto their success by designing package tours for Japanese tourists with tickets to the musicals. Now Korean musical producers are taking a more aggressive approach by flying the entire cast overseas and using K-pop stars as headliners.
Industry insiders predict this will open up a new market capable of generating more than W50 billion in ticket sales alone, not to mention the profits from derivative items. They arrived at this figure based on the assumption that the market can support 10 major Korean musicals, with each one having a potential stage life in Japan of 50 performances.
When Kim Kyu-jong of SS501 turned up in Kyoto on June 11 to play the main character Lee Shin in "Goong," the 1,200-capacity theater could barely accommodate all of the screaming female fans who had come to see their "prince charming" in the flesh.
Most were already familiar with the plot, as the original comic book and TV series adaptation were introduced to Japan in 2000 and 2006, respectively, and many had shelled out 13,000 yen for the most expensive tickets.
"It would have been impossible to lure a Japanese audience of this size without having a Korean Wave star," said a staff member from Group 8, which produced the show.
Kim Kwang-su, who produced the musical "Tears of Heaven," said Korea's young stars are leading the charge, and helping fans migrate from one medium to another. "Japan wants Girls' Generation, Kara, Supernova, TVXQ, and Jang Keun-suk," he said. "Musicals that are made in Korea lack appeal in the foreign market without the help of Korean Wave stars."
The changing dynamics of the target audience are already starting to filter down to the way Korean musicals are being designed, insiders claim.
"We are now seeing the emergence of musicals that are being produced and directed with an eye on the Japanese market," said musical director Yoon Ho-jin.
Others cautioned that an over-reliance on star power will ultimately backfire and weaken the art form itself.
"I feel a sense of disappointment in that the popularity is not a verification of the quality of the musical itself," said Won Jong-won, a professor of media studies at Soonchunhyang University. "Although it may be harder in the beginning, if producers take a long-term perspective and work more on the quality of the musical, rather than simply relying on a star-studded cast, a bigger market will open up."