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[Herald Review] 25-year-old ‘Last Empress’ returns with more color

A scene from “Last Empress” (Acom)
A scene from “Last Empress” (Acom)

The original Korean-language musical “Last Empress” opened its curtains in Seoul earlier this month.

The musical, which had its premiere in 1995, shows the life of 19th-century Empress Myeongseong, who was assassinated by Japanese agents in the years before Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of its premiere, the show went through some major changes to appeal to modern audiences.

The musical, which originally featured only musical numbers without any spoken lines, added some dialogue this season so the audience could better understand the fast-moving plot.

Set in the Joseon era, it features some numbers inspired by gugak, traditional Korean music. Barrier-breaking musician Yang Bang-eon, who was the music director for the PyeongChang Olympics’ opening ceremony, rearranged the numbers with a modern touch.

Though the numbers have been rearranged, the musical still features traditional elements, such as Joseon-era music and dance.

When Empress Myeongseong prays to conceive a son, a Korean “mudang,” or shaman, performing a ritual dance called a “gut,” goes onstage. The ritual has been transformed into an artistic dance ceremony.

Also, it features “Hwagwanmu,” also known as the floral coronet dance, created by choreographer Kim Baek-bong in the 1950s and inspired by court dances at royal banquets. The dance was performed by some 2,000 dancers during the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

The musical was one of the first original Korean-language musical productions to go onstage, at a time when the local musical scene was dominated by licensed Broadway and West End productions.

After the 1995 premiere, the show traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, where it was well received by international audiences.

For this season’s production, big-name stage actors Kim So-hyun and Shin Young-sook star as Empress Myeongseong.

The musical is to run until March 7 at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. Tickets are priced from 60,000 won to 140,000 won.

By Im Eun-byel (