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Korean musicals need time for sophistication

Feb. 15, 2011 - 19:59 By 김윤미
Broadway expert lauds Korean talents as ‘exceptional’ on world stage

A veteran U.S. musical director has said Seoul’s musical scene boasts a many more talented musical actors than Broadway but lacks the time necessary to perfect technical elements to make the product more sophisticated.

Robert Johanson is in Seoul to direct the musical “Monte Cristo” for the second consecutive year. The show is to run from March 1 at the Chungmu Art Center with local musical stars Ryu Jung-han, Um Ki-joon and Shin Song-rok triple-cast in the lead role.

“In terms of talent, it’s exceptional. That’s why we could do a triple cast. In many shows in America, I couldn’t find three leads to triple cast that would be equally good,” said Johanson in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of people in China and Japan come here to see musicals in Korea because the best singers are in Seoul,” he said.

However, Korean musicals need much more development time, especially for the creative team to fine-tune technical work during rehearsals at theaters to further refine the product, he said.
Robert Johanson, director of musical “Monte Cristo,” poses during an interview in Seoul on Jan. 19. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

“You can get much more spectacular shows in New York because they can spend six months in the theater before they open. Here, we spend six days,” the 59-year-old said.

“There’s only a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time and there’s no playing around here.”

Of course, the performance and the story are more important than the technical work but “a little bit more sophistication” comes if you do it, he added.

Johanson supported the idea of giving K-pop idols the chance to debut as musical actors, while some critics say the immaturity and insincere attitudes of idol stars could spoil the atmosphere.

He took an example of Kim Jun-su of boy band JYJ who did an excellent job with the musical “Mozart” last year. Johanson said Kim did not know much about the musical at the first rehearsal, but had learned really fast. Whether everybody else will make the journey in the same way that he did, however, is questionable, he said.

“It’s a case-by-case thing. If they do one or two shows and they don’t get it, then they don’t get it. Give me them a chance to grow a little bit,” he said.

Born in 1951 in Delaware, Johanson started directing when he was 11. He used to gather 35 kids in a show and put it on for the whole school every year.

He went to Ithaca College, an art school famous for music and drama courses, and then went straight to New York to get into a Broadway show.

Since taking his first full time job as a director aged 25, Johanson has directed over 250 musicals and plays in New York and around the world in the last 35 years.

Johanson was the artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse for more than 20 years until 2002 and he has been working as a freelance director since.

He started directing Korean musicals because he wanted to keep doing new shows, rather than repeating what he had done before.

“There aren’t many strong opportunities in the U.S. because people are nervous about the economy, so they’re doing the shows that everybody knows,” he said.

Musical “Monte Cristo” is based on the novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” and the music was composed by Frank Wildhorn.

Although it was premiered in Switzerland with different production and creative teams in 2009, the Korean version is unique, Johanson said.

The successful showcase of “Monte Cristo” at the Universal Arts Center last year led to an upgrade for the second show at the larger Chungmu Art Hall’s Grand Theater, which is better equipped for the musical.

“People who have seen the first show will see all kinds of small changes throughout. We’re fine-tuning everything for perfection,” he said.

Musical “Monte Cristo” runs from March 1 through April 24 at the Chungmu Art Hall’s Grand Theater. Tickets range from 50,000 won to 120,000 won. For details, visit

By Kim Yoon-mi (