For ‘Dreamgirls,’ Pacific Overtures
SEOUL, South Korea — Several months ago, when John F. Breglio told fellow New York producers that he was not only remaking “Dreamgirls,” the 1981 Broadway hit musical based loosely on the career of the Supremes, but that he was also going to South Korea to do it, they were puzzled, to say the least.
“Then they really laugh,” he said, when he told them “that it’s in Korean with Korean actors.”
Mr. Breglio, the executor of the estate of Michael Bennett (who directed and choreographed “Dreamgirls” and “A Chorus Line,” among others), calls his venture an experiment. His $6.7 million “Dreamgirls” opened to a packed theater here on Feb. 27 and has drawn good reviews.
What Mr. Breglio’s company, Vienna Waits Productions, is doing with its South Korean partner, Shin Chun Soo, the president of the OD Musical Company in Seoul, is unusual for American theater producers, some of whom said they were skeptical that elements of a Korean production would transfer smoothly to an American stage. Nevertheless, Mr. Breglio plans to open the show, with a new American cast, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in November.
Mr. Shin, representative of South Korea’s new, voracious appetite for musical theater, bankrolled the production: royalties for American artists, a local cast, costumes and a $1.5 million set.
The financial incentives for Mr. Breglio to go to South Korea were significant, coming as many Broadway producers are struggling to cover production costs. The fact that the set was made and financed here, and will be transferred to the United States for the run there, is a big savings for the American producers.
The South Korean side is also covering the lion’s share of the entire tryout costs: wages and expenses for the 20-member American creative staff during its stay here (which ran from a month to 10 weeks), the Americans’ lodgings and meals, the costs of choreography and stage and costume designs (though the costumes will be remade for American actresses). By the time “Dreamgirls” reaches the Apollo, Mr. Breglio said, he will need to have raised only around $5 million, half of what it usually costs to put on a show in the United States. “This model is more important than ever because there is a real threat right now in the United States to getting these shows done,” he said in an interview here. “Even without the crisis, Broadway has gone very expensive.”
Economics are not the only reason for the strategy. In an era when “the Internet and YouTube does not allow you a great deal of time to develop and make mistakes,” Robert Longbottom, the director of the production, said, “coming to Korea was about as far out of town as you could get.”
If this works, other Broadway producers will follow suit, said Jack M. Dalgleish, a New York producer who was not part of the “Dreamgirls” crew but helped to facilitate the partnership of Mr. Breglio and Mr. Shin.
“We are looking for new ways to develop musicals,” he said.
Some longtime Broadway producers remain skeptical of the artistic value of transferring “Dreamgirls” — or any other production, for that matter — from South Korea to the United States, when the cast and language in Seoul will be different.
The main purpose of out-of-town tryouts is to have time to work with a cast and a creative team to perfect a show, and to fix weak parts of a production, based on audience response. Given that “Dreamgirls” will have an American makeover in the United States, the South Korean production seems less about rethinking the out-of-town tryout than about tapping a new market of investors.
“I don’t think South Korea represents a trend for Broadway,” said Emanuel Azenberg, a Broadway producer. “I think it represents a country where ‘Dreamgirls’ is happening. We went through this with Japan before — American shows had to go to Japan at some point. But I don’t know what you really gain aesthetically by trying out one version of a show in a foreign country first.”
For South Koreans, though, the arrangement is a matter of pleasure and cultural explorations. Many here are not especially familiar with African-American heritage. But the universal themes of the story — three young women struggling to escape men’s exploitation and make it on their own in show business, the power of sisterhood and redemption — made the 2006 Hollywood movie adaptation hugely successful in South Korea, a country with a new generation of assertive women moving from the margins of society to the center.
South Korea is a natural place for American producers to look: the country has 180 musicals already running or scheduled to go onstage in the coming weeks. Ticket sales for musicals grew 25 percent last year, according to Interpark, the country’s largest online ticket seller. “Dreamgirls” was leading the musical rankings this week.
Among the cultural differences the producers had to overcome were the hesitancy and even embarrassment that Korean actresses feel about expressing strong emotions.
“The women are not as confrontational as they are in the United States,” Mr. Longbottom said. “Pointing your finger at someone’s face and chasing them around the stage and yelling at them was something that didn’t come naturally to this group of people.”
Kim So Hyang, who played Lorrell Robinson, one of the three young singers, said she initially felt “resistant” to the American director’s demand for “what we Koreans considered overdoing it and exaggerated acting.”
Many Korean actresses hope to perform on Broadway one day. Like the African-American women of “Dreamgirls,” who rose from the fringe of show business to stardom, Korean musical performers have only recently begun enjoying a national following after years of being dismissed as crude imitators of a foreign art form.
Hong Ji Min, who plays Effie White, the show’s full-figured, gospel-voiced lead singer, said she struggled to render the deep vocal flavor of the character.
But working with the composer, Henry Krieger, whom the actresses called Grandpa, was their own dream come true.
“We cry after each show,” Ms. Hong said. “This has a story that feels so close to our heart. It’s about the show business. It’s about having a dream.”Patrick Healy contributed reporting from New York.