Shin Chun-soo, chief producer of OD Co., has been dealing with thyroid problems recently, a condition he described as even harder to deal with than his open-heart surgery two years ago. Shin confesses to being less and less stimulated by company. Once an extrovert, he has retreated to literature and musical books in his enduring search for inspiration.
But when he talks about musicals and his upcoming projects in and outside Korea, his face lights up. Shin was originally a wannabe movie director in his 20s. One day, after taking the helm of a stage-musical, he realized he had discovered his calling, and has been inextricably linked with Korean musical productions since.
OD Co. celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2021. Since the company started in 2001 with the production of “Guys and Dolls,” he has produced various licensed and original musicals, including "Sweeney Todd," "Death Note," "Jekyll & Hyde," "Man of La Mancha," "Dracula," "Grease," "The Story of My Life" and more.
Shin has become one of the producers credited with bringing about the heyday of the country’s musical scene, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of its performing arts in terms of revenue and the number of performances. In 2022, out of a total 425.3 billion won ($346 million) of revenue generated in the performing arts industry, 76 percent stemmed from musicals, according to the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System.
'The Great Gatsby'
Shin also has a rare career achievement outside Korea, from which he hopes to achieve more.
He has taken to podiums for acceptance speeches at several musical awards ceremonies, but he still dreams of more -- to produce a successful production on Broadway, where top productions are visited by audiences from all over the world.
While it is practically unprecedented for a Korean producer to work on Broadway, he has had not one, but two chances as a lead producer on Broadway -- “Holler If Ya Hear Me” and “Doctor Zhivago” -- but they were not commercially successful. So while he recognizes their value, he won't stop with those experiences.
"Unlike other content like movies or TV dramas, which can tell their story through subtitles, musicals still have language barriers. For that reason, I believe, for a musical to be influential globally, it is important to be recognized at the center for musicals," he said.
His next attempt to crack the Big Apple is a production of “The Great Gatsby,” based on the namesake novel, which fell out of copyright on Dec. 31, 2020 in the US.
Shin’s musical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about nouveau riche Jay Gatsby, who pursues his love object Daisy Buchanan, will feature a jazz and pop-infused score with music and lyrics by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen and writing by Kait Kerrigan. The lab workshop of “The Great Gatsby” took place in December last year and it is likely to be unveiled in 2023 or 2024.
“Members of the creative team might have different nationalities, but their passion knows no boundaries. It’s really exciting because we’re working for one purpose -- to make a great piece,” Shin said.
Shin, who is also the chairman of the Korean Association of Musical Producers (KAMP), believes that the COVID-19 pandemic presented something of an unexpected denouement for the industry. Behind spectacular growth in the past two decades, a vulnerable foundation was revealed, he said. The situation in Korea was better than Broadway or the West End in London, where theaters shut down entirely, but the suspension of performances with no cast-iron guarantees on when they might reopen risked the livelihoods of all involved at both the back and front of the house.
Musical production companies that had previously been unwaveringly independent have since united to establish an association. Since the lifting of most social distancing measures in April last year, the theater district has been booming more than ever, but the lesson from the pandemic may be that a crisis can come at any time without warning.
"With COVID-19, the industry shares the sense that the musical market should have a reasonable production system as it has grown rapidly," he said. "In order for musicals to be competitive as a content industry like film, K-pop and K-dramas, government support and industrial development must be offered."
K-Musicals needs support to go global
Shin, who is also the chairman of the Korean Association of Musical Producers (KAMP), believes that the COVID-19 pandemic presented something of an unexpected denouement for the industry. Behind spectacular growth in the past two decades, a vulnerable foundation was revealed, he said. Musical production companies that had previously been unwaveringly independent have since united to establish an association.
"With COVID-19, the industry shares the sense that the musical market should have a reasonable production system as it has grown rapidly," he said, adding that "In order for musicals to be competitive as a content industry like film, K-pop and K-dramas, government support and industrial development must be offered."
Shin said he is delighted with Korean actors and thinks that they could be world-class were there no language barrier. "Having said that, we need to improve in terms of creative aspects like music, musical scripts, costumes, lighting and so on. For that, we need a healthy ecosystem that can attract and support young talent and for that, the market needs to grow further."
He pointed out that the Korean musical market, despite having the youngest audience in the world, is not big enough and needs to go abroad like K-dramas and K-pop have done.
"At the end of the day, the most important thing is creating good productions. Then people will buy a Korean production. After some twenty years of experience, I think we're ready to develop more creative and original works, and that's what OD Company and I will focus on in the future," Shin said.