His offices in Seoul are nearly 7,000 miles from New York — a 14-hour flight made several times a year — but that hasn’t deterred Chun-soo Shin from his bid to become a major Broadway player.
One of Korea’s top theater producers, Shin has already made money off the growing popularity of American-style musicals in his native country. His hits include “Dreamgirls” and “Jekyll & Hyde,” the latter of which has become one of the most popular musicals ever produced in Korea.
The 45-year-old Shin is now looking to take his success to a global level. And he’s found a partner in one of Southern California’s major theater companies, the La Jolla Playhouse.
“Musicals can speak internationally, so long as the production is good,” said Shin, speaking through an interpreter, during a recent stop in La Jolla.
Looking dapper in a gray suit with stylish eyewear, Shin appeared every bit the part of the jet-set producer as he sipped coffee in the lobby of a posh seaside hotel.
“Awhile back, people on Broadway didn’t pay attention to the Asian market. That’s changing now. In five years, the Asian market for musicals will be as big as Broadway.”
That may be optimistic thinking given the state of the global economy, but Shin clearly likes to think mega-musical big.
He is staking a lot of money on the science-fiction musical “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” on which he is a lead producer. The show debuted in La Jolla last year, and Shin has plans to take it to Broadway and to Asia.
He is also one of the producers on the Broadway-bound touring revival of “Jekyll & Hyde,” starring “American Idol” alumnus Constantine Maroulis, which ended its run at the Pantages Theatre earlier this month.
Shin said the tryout run for “Yoshimi” in La Jolla cost approximately $3.8 million, with major investors including his company in Seoul, OD Musical; the La Jolla Playhouse; and the Dodgers, a New York production company.
The La Jolla Playhouse declined to discuss the show’s finances. Michael Rosenberg, the company’s managing director, said in a separate interview that he traveled to Seoul in December to meet with Shin and will be back in the spring to discuss other possible collaborations.
“He’s a good fit for our company,” Rosenberg said. “He cares passionately about musical theater and bringing it [to Korea] where there’s a real hunger for it.”
Taking “Yoshimi” to New York will cost a little more than $10 million, Shin said. The show employs complex visual effects to evoke a world of robots. To help spread the costs, he is seeking out investors in China, Japan and Korea.
The jukebox musical uses songs by the alternative rock band The Flaming Lips to tell a sci-fi story of a young woman fighting a life-threatening illness.
Shin thinks the musical could appeal to Asian audiences because of its Japanese-American heroine and the use of anime imagery. The earliest he expects to bring “Yoshimi” to Broadway is 2014.
Korea has become an increasingly important market for American musicals in the last 10 years, according to Marc Routh, a New York theater producer and a founder of Broadway Asia, a group that brings stage productions to Asian countries.
“What has propelled the musical there is that Korean music stars [or K-pop singers] have starred in shows in the legitimate theater,” Routh said in a phone interview.
Japan has been an important market for musicals for many years while China is emerging as one, he said.
Financial statistics on the Korean theater market are difficult to find because of the industry’s relative youth. Shin’s company estimates that the size of the musical theater industry has reached approximately $270 million. By comparison, the annual Broadway economy, which includes musicals and plays, had $1.14 billion in ticket sales for the most recent season, according to data from the Broadway League, an industry group.
The Korean musical market is estimated to be growing at about 15% annually, according to Shin’s company.
Shin isn’t the only Korean producer who has attempted to make money on Broadway. In 2007, PMC Productions, a Korean live-entertainment company, invested in “Legally Blonde,” and later took it to Seoul, where it has been a box-office success.
But Shin is virtually unique among Korean theater producers in his desire to become a regular presence on Broadway.
He got his feet wet in the U.S. market with the recent “Dreamgirls” national tour, which came to the Ahmanson Theatre in 2010.
The “Dreamgirls” revival started in Korea, with the sets and costumes created by Shin’s company. The production then toured the U.S. with an American cast.
Shin now has several projects in the works on both continents. But he knows from experience that the odds for turning a profit on any given show remain daunting.
“The media in Korea think that I’ve had nothing but hits, and that’s not true,” he said. “I’ve produced maybe 37 musicals, big and small, and I’ve only succeeded at five of them.”
His Broadway batting average so far isn’t any better. He recently invested in “Chaplin,” a musical about the silent-film star that originated at La Jolla. The musical ran for four months in New York but failed to recoup its initial investment.
Shin said he has acquired rights to “Chaplin” for Asia and wants to produce it in Japan, where he thinks it will find an audience.
His next Broadway project is the U.S. “Jekyll & Hyde” tour, which is scheduled to open at the Marquis Theatre in New York in April. Shin has produced “Jekyll” in Korea in a somewhat different version from the ones seen in the U.S.
“Audiences in Korea like more emotion and heightened drama. In the U.S., it’s more about realistic characters,” he said. The Korean version of “Jekyll,” which is sung in Korean with Korean actors, is 40 minutes longer than the American.
Musicals in Korea tend to have short, limited runs, and are revived frequently if they prove to be popular. Shin’s company has produced “Jekyll & Hyde” six times and has plans to revive it again in 2014.
Des McAnuff, the Tony Award-winning director and former artistic director at La Jolla, has worked with Shin on “Yoshimi” as well as the musical version of “Doctor Zhivago” in Seoul.
“The audiences are incredibly young [in Korea],” McAnuff said by phone from New York.
“You go to the theater and you’re surrounded by people in their 30s and even 20s. They are the vast majority of the audience. Going to the theater is part of the night life there.”
Shin is currently developing a new musical titled “Spin,” based on the hit 2008 Korean film “Speed Scandal.” The musical is being penned in English, by American writers Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, and will be translated into Korean for its premiere.
The biggest culture shock for Shin has been dealing with the number of producers on any given Broadway show. In Korea, there is usually just one main producer, he said.
Shin also said most American producers only want to talk about money, whereas he also likes to talk about artistic matters.
“The most important thing for me is creating a good musical,” he said. “And then the rest will follow.”