Is the Soul of American Musical Theater in Seoul?

Korea seems to love American-born Broadway musicals, it seems. In fact, ticket sales to American and European musicals, according to a recent story by Patrick Healy in the New York Times, have grown from $9 million in 2000 to an estimated $300 million this year.

Wicked is huge; Mamma Mia! too. Grease is popular. Guys and Dolls, a New York musical through-and-through, is a big ticket seller in Seoul. Those are all well-known and beloved musicals, of course. But the financial disasters, the critical duds, they’re big, too. Bonnie & Clyde the musical, which ran for less than two months on Broadway in 2011, is a huge South Korean success. Ghost the Musical, a stage adaptation of the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore tearjerker that didn’t last long on Broadway, is faring similarly well.

As Judy Craymer, the lead producer of Mamma Mia! told Healy, “Seoul has become incredibly important in the lives of many musicals, something none of us would’ve said or predicted a decade ago.” 

Why Seoul? Why now? Broadway musicals tap into an audience of young Korean women, “raised on the bombast of Korean pop and the histrionics of television soap operas,” Healy writes. The typical audience member is a young woman in her 20s or 30s (though musicals are popular with Korean men, as well) who has a good salary and is still living with her parents (they’re not living with a significant other until marriage). This leaves them with a disposable income, which they spend on show tickets that cost roughly the same as tickets in New York City.

Some worry that the musical bubble will burst, as Korean producers scramble to acquire production rights to American musicals faster and faster, and the market becomes more and more saturated. “There is a bubble right now – too many musicals, and people don’t know what to see,” Korean producer Seol Doyun told Healy. “The interesting thing is, in Korea most bubbles don’t really burst.” So for the time being, there is no end in sight to the South Korean appetite for American musicals of all stripes, meaning that no matter how well a show fares (or doesn’t) in the states, it could very well have an enthusiastic audience waiting elsewhere in the world.

So the bubble grows and grows. Perhaps someone will write a musical about staging an American musical in Korea. Young Koreans will flood the booth for tickets.