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[Herald Review] Beethoven vs. Beethoven: two takes on the great musician’s life vie for public and critical acclaim

Feb. 11, 2023 - 16:01 By Park Ga-young

Currently in Seoul, eight time zones from where Ludwig van Beethoven was born and died, two musicals inspired by the musician are taking place. With the exception of the source of inspiration, the two productions are like chalk and cheese.

“Ludwig: Beethoven the Piano” is a small-scale production in the off-off Broadway style, while “Beethoven: The Secret” is an extravagant production that takes place in a cavernous theater boasting 2,200 seats.

The former, produced by Orchard Musical Company, is in its fourth run since 2018 and a brainchild of director and writer Choo Jung-hwa and composer Huh Soo-hyun, a married couple of 22 years and creative partners of 11 years. The couple is also behind acclaimed original musicals like "Blue Rain" and "Interview."

The world premiere of "Beethoven: The Secret" was produced by EMK with lyricist Michael Kunze and composer Sylvester Levay, the duo behind hit musical productions such as “Mozart!,” “Elisabeth,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Rebecca."

Each powered by creative teams with proven records, the two productions show how they used their artistic license to attract audiences and present different storylines by portraying vastly different aspects of the same person, which set the atmosphere of the productions.

While “Beethoven: The Secret” focuses on the love of the composer’s life, “Ludwig: Beethoven the Piano” shows his struggle with deafness and obsession.

Beethoven in love

“Beethoven: The Secret” evolves around Beethoven’s love for his “Unsterbliche Geliebte (Eternally Beloved),” who, in this production, is suggested to be Antonie Brentano, a married woman with three children. The writer of the musical has convinced himself, and seeks to convince us, that Beethoven's ability to write music while deaf was due to the power of love.

“Beethoven: The Secret” (EMK)

Some may argue that the musical fails to capture the enormous, all-encompassing significance of its subject through Beethoven's affairs, particularly because it is not so convincing why the composer falls in love with Brentano in the first place.

Beethoven appears as an eccentric and intransigent man. He falls in love with Brentano when she defends him during Beethoven’s dispute with an aristocrat. This unfortunately makes Beethoven seem emotionally deprived, and as someone who falls in love with the first woman who shows any type of affection.

Nonetheless, the cast is attention-grabbing and showcases their outstanding acting and singing skills. Park Hyo-shin, Park Eun-tae and Kai play Beethoven, while Ok Joo-hyun, Cho Chung-eun and Yoon Gong-ju play Brentano, which feels like a character out of "Elizabeth" or "Marie Antoinette.”

Despite initial disappointment about the production, one fan of Park Hyo-shin surnamed Jeong said on Jan. 31 at the Seoul Arts Center after watching the musical for the third time that she hopes it follows the path of “The Man Who Laughs,” which premiered in 2018.

"I have nothing much to say about the production itself, but Park is so great and I'll come back for other Park shows. I believe it will get better, just as 'The Man Who Laughs' did. It wasn't that great in the beginning, but evolved through reruns."

Obsessed Beethoven

Meanwhile, “Ludwig: Beethoven the Piano” presents a narrative about a lonely, gifted man’s journey through deafness and obsession. It focuses on Beethoven’s complex and controversial relationship with his sole nephew, Karl van Beethoven. The show's writer took artistic license in adding two key fictional characters in an attempt to rationalize the composer's apparent obsession with his nephew, asking why Beethoven was so keen for his nephew to learn to play the piano, despite the young man's lack of musical talent and ambition to become a soldier.

“Ludwig: Beethoven the Piano” (Orchard Musical Company)

Mari, one of the two new characters, is a woman “ready to fight against the unfair world” to become an architect. She cares for Walter, the second key character and son of the professor who took her under his wing, after he passes away. Mari, who grew up listening to Beethoven play in her hometown, begs him to take on the musical prodigy Walter as his pupil, but to no avail. Ultimately, without Beethoven's teaching, Walter is forced to leave the country and dies in a shipwreck on his way to the UK. Walter’s death and Mari’s outcry renews despairing Beethoven's will to live.

The show's introduction of fictional elements helps to flesh out the narrative, and the simple and intimate staging of just two pianos and five actors, who exceptionally play a total of eight characters, fully exceeds expectations.

On the left side of the stage, a pianist whose identity would surprise the audience at the end plays music inspired by Beethoven throughout the two-hour show without intermission.

Creative endeavors

Although many aspects of Beethoven’s life are publicly known, there are still some missing pieces -- like who his Eternally Beloved was or why he was so devoted to his nephew. These unverified elements spark the imaginations of many artists around the world, and their fresh ideas in turn attract new audiences and inspire them.

Beethoven is one of the greatest composers of all time, whose music has inspired countless artists and continues to captivate music lovers to this day. Needless to say, these are audacious attempts to create musicals about him. For that reason alone, it is fascinating that his life and music have inspired not one but two musicals in Korea, and these creative endeavors deserve recognition.

Until March, musical lovers in Korea will have the unique opportunity to compare the two different adaptations of Beethoven's life and music as well as the different interpretations and creative choices made by the respective teams.

“Beethoven: The Secret” runs until March 26 at the Seoul Arts Center in Seocho-gu, Seoul. Ticket prices range from 80,000 won to 170,000 won. “Ludwig: Beethoven the Piano,” which will bid farewell to Daehagno with this run, possibly for a bigger production, will take place at the Yes24 Stage in Jongno-gu until March 16. Tickets are available at 44,000 won and 66,000 won.