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German musicals popular in Seoul

Dramatic and emotionally-charged musicals from Germany appeal to Korean sensibilities

This year Korea will produce one of the largest numbers of German musicals in the world.

Ever since the musical boom in the early 2000s, Korea has looked mostly to Broadway for inspiration, but is now turning its gaze to Europe.

German imports “Elisabeth,” “Rebecca” and “Mozart!” have hit stages to roaring success, and are holding their own against tried-and-true American staples such as “Wicked,” “Chicago” and “Hairspray.”

General manager of EMK Musical Company Sophy Kim, who will this year produce four European musicals out of the five-show season, attributes Korea’s embracing of German musicals to its broad drama and emotional content.

“German musicals have a great power in drama and a different quality that appeals to the Korean sensibility,” Kim said.

“‘Mozart!’ is not just an epic re-telling of the famous composer’s life ― like having a history lesson ― but more about the emotions and feelings he experienced throughout his greatest triumphs and downfalls,” she said.

“The story transcends time and space and becomes universal.”

When Kim watches “Mozart!,” the show “takes on a personal real quality” for her because she is reminded of the relationship between herself and her father: “Sometimes it hurts but sometimes it comforts,” she said.
A scene from the musical “Mozart!”
A scene from the musical “Mozart!”

“Similarly, a lot of people cry while watching ‘Elisabeth’ because in those moments you feel like the Empress of Austria or you see your mother or grandmother through Elisabeth’s character; she’s no longer a figure from a long time ago.”

From grand opera-like musical numbers to quiet but highly emotional solo songs, much of the German musical is sung through, with epic and sweeping underscores.

This style sets composer of “Elisabeth,” “Rebecca” and “Mozart!” Sylvester Levay’s shows apart from the traditional loud and brassy Broadway musical.

Levay, who is in Korea this week for the premiere for “Mozart!,” said when he began writing musicals after 20 years of composing for Hollywood films, he didn’t make an active choice to compete with the Broadway musicals.

“I just took a different path,” he said. “Americans have a hard time breaking loose because they are still strongly connected to the musical comedy.”

“They haven’t let go of the old-school George Gershwin and Cole Porter-like shows where you have stand-alone songs in between big dance numbers and jokes.”

Levay and writing partner Michael Kunze pick stories for their dramatic content rather than potential for sparkling dance numbers and up-beat showtunes.

“We have a lot of respect for other musicals but our ‘emotions, emotions, emotions’ style is working and we plan on continuing it,” he said.

The rapid rise of K-pop has also contributed to the warm way Korean audiences respond to new German shows.

“Korea is a small country and has a limited number of theater spectators, but fans travel from around the world to watch K-pop stars performing in musicals,” Kim said.

The first production of “Mozart!” two years ago with Kim Jun-su attracted hundreds of international fans, mainly from Japan, who flew to Korea just to see the popular JYJ singer.

“Fans of K-pop who initially come to see their favorite star perform often turn into long-term fans of the Korean musical, which makes our market larger.”

With over 1,000 musicals performed in Korea every year and only Japan rivaling in the non-European world’s intake of German shows, Kim says the future is looking bright here for German musicals.

She hopes to continue the long-term working relationship with Levay and potentially collaborate with European and Korean artists on new works to fully forge what she calls the “third generation” of Korean musicals.

“We have found a new path to the future of the Korean musical industry and this time it doesn’t start and end with Broadway and London’s West End,” Kim said.

“Mozart!” the musical is showing at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts from July 10-28. Tickets range from 30,000 to 130,000 won. For more information, visit

By Maryann Wright, Intern reporter