Sitting outside in a cold and windy night on an uncomfortable plastic chair for 100 minutes might be challenging, but witnessing a musical centered on King Sejong the Great with the majestic hall, Geunjeongjeon, National Treasure No. 233, as the backdrop at Gyeongbokgung truly felt like a privilege.
At 7:30 p.m. on May 2, night had already fallen and the show began by illuminating a spotlight on a pansori performer who introduced the historical background of the story.
As pansori singer Lee Bong-geun captivated the audience with his soulful voice, King Taejo, Sejong's father performed by renowned actor Nam Kyung-joo, entered via the royal passage that stretches from the gate to the hall. Then others emerged from various directions to the stone platforms -- the night’s stage -- that is some 30 meters wide.
From there, the show portrayed the lesser-known story of Sejong's journey from Crown Prince Chungnyeong to becoming the king who created Hangeul despite gradually losing his eyesight and facing hardships along the way. The 1446 in the musical's title refers to the year in which Sejong introduced the entirely new and native script for the Korean language in "Hunminjeongeum."
The grandeur inherent in the palace venue combined with the traditional costumes was so effective in reenacting the era that it became difficult to imagine the musical being performed inside a traditional theater setting.
Geunjeongjeon is not just the historic hall in which the musical happens to take place. Built in 1394, the third year of the reign of Joseon Dynasty founder King Taejo, King Sejong’s grandfather, Geunjeongjeon, meaning “the hall of diligent politics,” was where kings conducted state affairs, held national ceremonies and received foreign envoys. It was also where King Sejong and other kings ascended to the throne. Unfortunately, the original hall was burned down during an invasion by the Japanese in 1592, and rebuilt in 1867.
“Sejong 1446” premiered in 2018, but this was the first time being performed at the palace.
The original musical runs for 150 minutes, but the special edition has been condensed into 105 minutes without an intermission while featuring 80 actors, more than twice the number of the original version.
The four days of performances at Gyeongbokgung will be special to the 2,800 people who got to watch the show for the price of just 10,000 or 20,000 won. It is uncertain if the musical, which took place from April 29 through May 2 as part of the 2023 Royal Court Cultural Festival, will return to the palace.
The annual event was in its ninth edition, celebrating the heritage of seven Joseon-era royal sites in Seoul, including five palaces. The organizers will have to assess any damages that might have been caused by lighting, sound systems and other stage settings to the national treasure before deciding whether to bring it back to the site.