America’s Broadway v. South Korean Theater


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The infamous Phantom of the Opera mask.

There are so many noticeable differences when comparing one culture of the world to another. People who live in one nation often pay little mind to the hobbies and lifestyles of another country. It is crucial to start learning more about other cultures little by little through popular aspects like music, food, and family. One great way to learn about another culture is through its entertainment, a rich representation of a nation as a whole, especially through theater. In this article, we will discuss the cultural differences in theater and musicals by comparing Broadway shows to South Korean productions.

Differences between theater culture
Korean and American theater cultures are very different. In a Broadway theater, you would typically expect a bar and/or snack stand so theater-goers can grab something to eat or drink before the show and during intermission. In a theater in Seoul, they restrict the food items you can bring into their theaters to just bottled water to keep their theaters pristine and kept. As well as this, in American theaters, you are expected to react to what the actors are doing by laughing, clapping, or even singing along in some cases. In a Korean theater, you are expected to be silent throughout the show.

Broadway licensing
Often, theaters in South Korea can license and translate a Broadway show from America. Wicked, Beauty and the Beast, and Phantom of the Opera are just a few of the many shows performed in Seoul. These shows typically are nearly exact replicas of the shows on Broadway. Cast members wear the same costumes, have the same set pieces, and perform the exact same show. Broadway licensing companies are typically very strict with what you can and cannot do for their shows, but one can’t help but wonder what would be added to the story by letting costume and set designers in different countries create their own world for the commonly told stories. Half-Korean Bucks County community member, Abby Lee, mentions that she would expect costumes to be the most different aspect of a South Korean show besides the language. After watching a snippet of the song “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, Miki Chelton had this to say about the video, despite not knowing the language, “You can tell the emotion for sure – it comes across well.” She wondered if the production could change the costuming, would the show be better? “I know the setting is France, so there are that and definite costumes for that culture, but maybe having a little leeway would help?” Otherwise, Lee states, “Besides language, I didn’t really notice any differences. It seemed very similar to the Western style”.

Original shows
There have been many shows written in South Korea. Original shows from there include Interview, Midnight Sun, and The Last Empress. The Last Empress was the first South Korean show to have international success. It tells the story of the legendary Queen Min, who was assassinated. The music is beautiful and haunting, taking music that is both operatic and the typical Broadway style. Midnight Sun was another popular musical. A stage recording was recently released in 2022, and shown to 80,000 audiences online and in 114 countries worldwide. It featured many K-Pop stars which helped promote the show more.

The casting process in both South Korean and Broadway productions is fairly similar. Avid theater fans in America are usually familiar with famous Broadway performers and celebrate every time one of their favorites announces a return to the stage. Some of the most well-known names on Broadway include Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy Jordan, Sutton Foster, Annaleigh Ashford, and many more. Similarly in South Korea, the casts of shows are usually comprised of well-known, experienced actors. This is also because the shows licensed from Broadway are performed over long periods of time. In South Korea, talented musical actors usually make reappearances in casts of big shows, but sometimes they include a rising star, such as a K-pop idol, to boost their early fame and success. Though it does not happen often, there are a few cases in which a show will cast a rookie a lead to make a big statement through their debut.

It is not difficult to see there is a multitude of both similarities and differences between Broadway shows performed in America and South Korean musical theater. The performance quality, theater etiquette, and overall productions are an incredible representation of their unique cultures as a whole. Whether it is a licensed Broadway show or an original piece, South Korean musical theater adds a whole new perspective to musicals as a whole. Even from just this comparison, it is clear that many cultures embrace their differences and similarities to benefit the entertainment industry and ultimately establish a distinct popular culture.