His acting was all smiles and scowls, and his dancing fell short of Broadway caliber, but Yang Yoseob, at 23, was an old pro at exuding heartache. Which was all that really mattered.
At a recent performance here of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock musical, the 1,000-strong audience fell into a mesmerized silence every time the spotlight fell on Yang, a sweet-faced star in the multibillion-dollar Korean pop music industry. The hush broke only once, when Yang, playing the much-abused son of the biblical Jacob, sang a Korean translation of Joseph’s power ballad Close Every Door. As he belted about hardship and hope, young women wept.
“He looked like he did in Caffeine,” said Jung Jeong-un, 17, during the intermission, referring to Yang’s recent K-pop video. “‘You’re bad to me, so bad to me, oh girl, you’re like caffeine,’” Jung quoted. “Yoseob’s hurt feels very deep. I love him.”
So much so that she had already bought another US$80 (NT$2,398) ticket to his next performance in Joseph.
Imagine Justin Bieber in a Broadway show, and the hottest trend in Seoul’s US$300 million theater market — which is crowded with US and European musicals — starts making sense. Not unlike Broadway’s star casting of movie and television actors like Daniel Craig and Bryan Cranston, producers here have been increasingly hiring K-pop stars, as well as Korean soap opera actors and other celebrities, to perform two or three times a week in major roles (with other actors handling the other nights) in exchange for the prestige of roles and payments of up to US$50,000 per appearance.
This fusing of homegrown performers with US and European shows has meant big money here — and lucrative royalties and fees for the show creators — by turning women in their teens, 20s and 30s into devoted and repeat customers. In the theater lobbies of Joseph, Grease and Bonnie & Clyde this fall, they snapped photos of each other standing beside life-size cutouts of their K-pop stars in costume. At Ghost the Musical, a Broadway flop that has opened its first Asian production here, competing fan groups used a large scale near the box office to weigh rice donations they made to charities on behalf of the musical’s K-pop and soap stars. And television and radio advertising emphasize the K-pop stars first and the show titles second for the dozens of musicals running across this city.
“Ten years ago, five years ago, ticket sales depended on a musical coming from Broadway or London or having a Tony Award, but today, K-pop casting has become the No. 1 criteria for a lot of shows,” said Chang Jun-won, a talent agent turned producer here whose latest show is a Korean version of Murder Ballad.
After he saw Murder in New York, he called one of his K-pop clients and said, “I’ve found something for you.” She is now starring in it.
“The stars bring in women, but they’re also famous enough to bring in Japanese and Chinese tourists, whom we need badly to keep growing our market,” he added.
K-pop is known for its high cuteness factor, fast-paced choreography and seductive winks, smiles and double takes, as well as lyrics that tend toward frothy fun or breakup boohoo. The music has become one of Korea’s most lucrative exports, propelling the so-called Korean Wave of culture through Asia while exploding into a YouTube phenomenon in the United States and elsewhere, thanks largely to the viral video Gangnam Style by Psy.