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[Feature] Enter stage right: Musical theatre holds opportunities for K-pop idols

In a tumultuous industry where careers are short-lived, K-pop idols are finding new paths in musical theatre

 
Tiffany Young of Girls‘ Generation plays Roxie Park in “Chicago.” (Seensee Company)
Tiffany Young of Girls‘ Generation plays Roxie Park in “Chicago.” (Seensee Company)

Over the past few years, K-pop idols have been expanding their horizon through onstage debuts, with more singers entering the world of musical theatre, which was once considered an elitist realm only for the classically trained.

The latest to make it on stage is Mamamoo‘s lead vocalist Solar, who made her debut in the titular role of “Mata Hari” in May. The cast included Chang-sub of boy band BTOB and rock band FT Island’s Lee Hong-ki, who played Armand, the male lead. 

Defying any doubts about her pop music background, Solar proved herself in the highly-acclaimed musical that revolves around the mysterious tale of Mata Hari, one of the world‘s most notorious female spies. Many praised the performer’s stage presence, and she earned rave reviews, shrugging off those who had been cynical about K-pop idols appearing in the theatre. 


Solar (center) performs with dancers in “Mata Hari.” (EMK Musical Co.)
Solar (center) performs with dancers in “Mata Hari.” (EMK Musical Co.)

Solar (center) performs with dancers in “Mata Hari.” (EMK Musical Co.)
Solar (center) performs with dancers in “Mata Hari.” (EMK Musical Co.)

“We‘re open to casting idols in our shows, but their commitments to their other work is often an issue. When Girls’ Generation‘s Seo-hyun joined ’Mamma Mia‘ as Sophie in 2016, she was devoted to the role and was able to give an incredible performance,” an official at Seensee Company, the production company that cast Seo-hyun, told The Korea Herald.

Whether or not the actor-turned-idol had the musical ability for the stage was not a worry. Like all musical performers, K-pop idols must prove themselves by going through auditions before being given a role.

Tiffany Young of Girls’ Generation was given the role of Roxie Park in “Chicago” through an open audition held in 2020. It was the first of its kind held by the Seensee Company, who was producing the musical. Before then, the company would give roles to a performer behind closed doors.

“We found out later that Tiffany applied. Some idols avoid auditions because they‘re worried about the embarrassment of rejection. But Tiffany knew the character and the show and had the skills to perform the role on stage. She received no special treatment for being a member of a famous K-pop group,” the official said.

Theatre producers will often try to capitalize on the fame of idols by casting them in shows in an effort to boost ticket sales.

“One of the great things about working with someone like Tiffany is the extra attention it brings to a production. She has a big fan base, and the number of views on our promotional videos proved that. In the theatre world, it’s hard to get millions of people to hear about your show. It‘s something musical actors find hard to do. But Tiffany did it.”

Each performance of “Chicago” almost entirely sold out. The production company also saw an increased number of male visitors that year.

But this isn’t the first time K-pop idols have found a home on stage.

Bada, who debuted as the lead vocalist in the girl group S.E.S. in 1997, was the first high-profile idol to make the switch to musical theatre in 2003‘s “The Peppermint.”

Ock Joo-hyun, a member of first-generation K-pop group Fin.K.L., made her move into the industry in 2005, taking on the lead role in “Aida.” Three years later, she played Roxie in “Chicago” and won best actress at The Musical Awards. The shows she featured in, such as “Rebecca,” were highly successful, and now, Ock is considered one of the best theatre ticket sellers in Korea. 


Tiffany Young of Girls‘ Generation plays Roxie Park in “Chicago.” (Seensee Company)
Tiffany Young of Girls‘ Generation plays Roxie Park in “Chicago.” (Seensee Company)

Appearing in musical theatre can be a golden opportunity for K-pop idols who come from an industry where careers are notoriously short-lived.

“When idols feel their careers are at risk of coming to an end, they might start thinking about a new path. Musical theatre presents a potentially-lucrative option for them. It’s a win-win for both sides: Idols can kick-start their career while drawing fans into the theatre, which means more money in the industry,” Lee Hye-jin, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, said.

Idol singers proved themselves a triple threat by starring in musicals because of their ability to sing, act and dance. Since then, the number of K-pop performers appearing on stage has increased, with some even winning awards along the way.

In 2010, JYJ‘s Junsu made his musical debut as the titular character in “Mozart!” In the same year, he took home the rookie award at the 16th Korean Musical Awards, proving that, as well as selling tickets, he can also dazzle industry judges.

He performed at the Sejong Cultural Center, selling out the 3,000-capacity venue every night during the 15-night run of “Mozart!”

While K-pop stars are increasingly turning to the stage, not all idols have that as an option, and the ability to sing well is still an important prerequisite. Those with the right talents, though, can use the stage to show the depth and range of their abilities.

“People tend to see idols merely as entertainment industry products. But K-pop idols can use the theatre to show who they are and reposition themselves as technically-skilled singers.” 


Tiffany Young of Girls‘ Generation plays Roxie Park in “Chicago.” (Seensee Company)
Tiffany Young of Girls‘ Generation plays Roxie Park in “Chicago.” (Seensee Company)

Lee further explained how musicals are a good opportunity for idols to demonstrate their other talents.

“Idols are familiar with some of the skills needed for musicals, which are an extension of singing and dancing on stage. While acting might not come naturally to some, versatile idols will have the talent to portray characters as well,” Lee added, saying that their skills make K-pop singers a natural fit for musicals.

Lee sees Korea’s stage musical industry as potentially the next driving force behind K-content‘s popularity, which is why idols are moving into the field.

“South Korea’s music industry ranks highly among other countries, proving that Korean music has the potential to go global.”

Lee said this could be an opportunity for K-pop singers to enter the American market.

“An American stage musical called ‘KPOP’ features idols like Luna of f(x), Kevin Woo of U-Kiss and Min of the now-disbanded Miss A. Just as with their idol activities, the musical theatre industry could be a land of opportunity where K-pop performers can expand their professional horizons.”

By Park Jun-hee (junheee@heraldcorp.com)
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