A Queen Pays Court to the West

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

Toward the end of "The Last Empress," the new Korean musical, Queen Min, in a duet with her son the crown prince, urges him to nurture his dreams, to grow "to be the strong pillar of the nation--and come out to meet the world in style!"

The controversial empress--part Evita, part Joan of Arc--is the central character in this sweeping, lavish production, which opens next Sunday in Century City at the Shubert Theater. And the exchange between Queen Min and her son reflects Korean history at a time, in 1895, when the isolationist Land of the Morning Calm was just waking up from its feudal sleep of five centuries to take its place among modern nations. The scene also parallels what this $10-million production, a rare Broadway-style Asian musical, is attempting to achieve: to demonstrate to the international musical-theater community what Koreans can do with the art form.

"We want to show the world that we have the capability of creating an artistic spectacle--singing, dancing, costumes and sets--which is a mixture of Korean music and Western production values," says Ho Jin Yun, the director of "The Last Empress" and the creative head of Arts Communications, or A-Com, the Seoul-based live-entertainment company he founded in 1993 and which is producing the musical. "We think now is a good time for us to see if we can establish a bridgehead on Broadway and then go all over the world," Yun says.

Yun's company of 50 singers and dancers (five of whom are Americans) wear more than 600 costumes in this show, which had its U.S. premiere last summer at Lincoln Center. Sung in Korean with English supertitles, the epic production played the New York State Theater for 13 performances to strong box office and good notices, and the New York Times called it "a magnificent musical--impressive by anyone's standards." The response was encouraging enough to warrant a return trip to the same theater last month, even though the initial engagement lost $1 million.

While the ratio of Asians to non-Asians in the audience was about 4 to 1 last year, Yun maintains that the numbers appear to have been more equally divided this time around. And he says that he is expecting another $500,000 loss this time (some say it could go over $1 million); yet he says that still represents an investment in the show's future. For the show's backers--a combination of private investors and corporate and government sponsors--the Los Angeles engagement is a huge leap in the show's struggle to establish itself as a franchise among touring mega-musicals.

"We jokingly call it the Korean 'Les Miz,' " says Steven M. Levy, A-Com's New York general manager, pointing out that the show is done with an Asian-style minimalism. "Stylistically, it's a cross between opera and Western theater, a crossover piece with classical overtones."

The same mix was apparent in an interview at A-Com's modest offices with Yun and the two stars of his production, Wonjung Kim and Taewon Yi Kim (no relation), who alternate singing the vocally taxing role of Queen Min. While Yun spoke in heavily accented English, the South Korean-born actresses often stepped in to interpret for him, proving themselves fluent not only in English but also in American culture, having both been based in New York for the past eight years.

Yun's familiarity with the Broadway musical began in the '80s, when he attended New York University's School of Drama, after which he returned to his native Seoul, where he continued as artistic director of the Sil-Hum Company. In 1993, he founded A-Com in an attempt to enhance South Koreans' experience of musical theater. A-Com's first production, a revival of "Guys and Dolls," was a big success by local standards. But "The Last Empress" proved to be a phenomenon in Seoul. According to Heehwan Lee, A-Com's U.S. representative, it is the only Broadway-style musical in South Korea that has ever turned a profit. The show galvanized audiences with its stirring chauvinistic anthems of a united and glorious nation and its passionate queen, whom the chorus, at one point in the musical, compares to Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Min, in the estimation of the young actresses who play the real-life figure, was a woman well ahead of her time--a commoner who agitated for an open-door trading policy and modernization, against the more conservative elements of the court of Chosun, as the country was then known. This also ran counter to Japan's imperialist designs on the country, and it led to her assassination by the Japanese in 1895.

"We are trying to relearn the lessons of history," says Yun about his choice of subject. "A hundred years ago, Korea was struggling with foreign powers all around it and now the situation is almost the same with not only Japan and Russia, but also with North Korea. The question again is what is Korea's place in the world and Queen Min is someone in our history who addresses what our contribution can be."

At first the artistic director approached Claude-Michel Schonberg, the composer of "Miss Saigon," to write the music, but when his fee turned out to be too expensive, Yun turned to South Koreans Mun Yol Yi to write the book, In Ja Yang the lyrics and Hee Gap Kim to compose the music. (Peter Casey, who has worked with A-Com on previous projects, provided the orchestrations as well as some additional music.) The show's chauvinistic appeal is enhanced by the fact that the long and humiliating Japanese occupation of Korea from 1895-1945 is still a relatively raw memory among Koreans. The show, in fact, veers toward the propagandistic insofar as it exalts Korean nationalism and portrays the Japanese as conniving, deceitful, imperialistic caricatures.

"I just objectively presented the truth," says Yun. "This is exactly how it happened. The Japanese killed Queen Min for the benefit of their nation, they did it as loyal subjects of the emperor."

Despite the uncomplimentary picture of the Japanese, there are plans to present "Queen Min" in Japan in early 1999. Even so, Yun says that he is receiving pressure from his Japanese co-presenters to delete both the first scene--of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima--and the last scene, in which the ghost of Queen Min returns to exhort her subjects to "Rise, People of Chosun, Rise! / Rise against the shame of ruining our nation!"

The director also notes that he has run into criticism at home for what detractors call a celebration of Japanese military might, given the spectacular pageantry with which the Land of the Rising Sun is treated. He has been called a "collaborator" for not denigrating the Japanese enough, Yun says. "My only concern was to present the history of Queen Min as we saw it." Ironically, until recently any teaching in South Korea about Queen Min came from Japanese-produced textbooks.

"I grew up in the '60s and '70s in Seoul and my education was still based on what [the Japanese] wrote," says Wonjung Kim. "The government then didn't think to correct it; they were too busy making money, pushing Korea to emerge out of the Third World. It was only in the late '70s and '80s that Korean historians and scholars sought to reclaim that history. Most people knew very little about Queen Min until Mr. Yun began to research this project.

"To me," the actress says, "Queen Min is like Princess Diana of England. She was a woman who was a bit too smart, too strong, too common for this royal family."

The show treads a thin line between traditional and more contemporary visions of Asian women, as well. While both actresses agree that Queen Min might well have fit the traditional category of Asian "dragon lady"--like the dowager empress of China or Madame Mao--the actresses insist that her first instinct in playing the power game was not for power itself but in order to protect her family. Since the definition of her family includes the kingdom of Chosun and all her people, it seems particularly fitting that A-Com's ultimate goal for "The Last Empress" is to be the first South Korean production to play in the secluded Communist North Korea.

"If we survive Japan, we will go to London next. But I believe, we all believe, that this production will eventually go to Buk Han," says Yun, using the term by which South Korea refers to its northern neighbor. "That will be for me, and for all of us, mission accomplished. It will stamp a certain historical moment. "After all," he adds, "Queen Min was the mother of Chosun, the whole country."


"THE LAST EMPRESS," Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars. Dates: Opens next Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 4. Prices: $25-$60. Phone: (800) 447-7400.

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