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[Korean Producers] Han Seung-won: Growing bigger with smaller, original musicals

By Park Ga-young

Published : June 24, 2023 - 16:01

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Han Seung-won, founder and CEO of HJ Culture, poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald at HJ Culture's office in Seoul on May 26. (Im Se-jun/The Korea) Han Seung-won, founder and CEO of HJ Culture, poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald at HJ Culture's office in Seoul on May 26. (Im Se-jun/The Korea)

HJ Culture, a South Korean musical theater production company, embarked on its musical journey with an enchanting production of "Vincent van Gogh" in 2014. This inaugural musical set the stage for the company's commitment to introducing historical figures through musicals, bringing to life the stories of legendary artists and other luminaries in musicals "Rachmaninoff," "Farinelli," "Paganini," "Egon Schiele," "Modigliani" and "Sejong 1446.”

The company's portfolio also includes "The Happy Prince" and "The Little Prince,” which are original works that exemplify the company's ability to transform familiar subjects into captivating and unique experiences.

The company’s founder and CEO, Han Seung-won, may have a commanding presence, but he demonstrates a preference for intricacy and smaller-scale productions.

“The Happy Prince” is a one-person show, while “Rachmaninoff” features two characters: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Dahl, a physician and psychiatrist.

Han thinks it’s important to experience the happiness one can feel only when watching a live performance, regardless of the size of the production. He recalls being deeply moved by the final scene of the musical "Matlida," where Matlida and her teacher, Miss Honey, finish the show with a captivating and stylish cartwheel.

“I feel so profoundly happy watching it. Without a superstar or any stage tools, how could they create such a wonderful scene? It’s the power of the script and the actors,” Han told The Korea Herald during a recent interview. “This scene highlights the connection people can only get through a live performance."

Musical Musical "The Little Prince" by HJ Culture (HJ Culture)

While smaller productions often forgo a musical band in their shows and larger productions place them in the pit, HJ Culture productions often have the band onstage as a tool to enhance the audience experience. In the case of "The Little Prince," three actors onstage are accompanied by a trio consisting of a violinist, pianist and cellist. The one-actor musical "The Happy Prince" features a quartet with piano, violin, guitar and percussion. The two-actor musical "“Rachmaninoff” has a piano as well as a string quintet.

Musical Musical "Sejong 1446," which took place at Gyeongbokgung during the 2023 Royal Court Cultural Festival in Seoul in April. (HJ Culture)

"Sejong 1446" is a deviation from the intimate settings of the company's other productions, but it proved that the company has the capability to make bigger productions when it was performed at none other than Gyeongbokgung, with Geunjeongjeon, National Treasure No. 233, as its backdrop, during the 2023 Royal Court Cultural Festival in April.

This performance marked a significant milestone for HJ Culture as it was their first endeavor in staging a full musical production at a historical venue. It also sparked in him a newfound ambition to captivate not only Korean, but also foreign audiences.

Han said he recognized the immense potential in harnessing the creative possibilities offered by historical venues and leveraging the rich tapestry of Korean history.

"I see great potential for being more creative in utilizing historical venues, as well as our history," he said.

Meanwhile, the company's productions have already piqued interest overseas.

While a plan to bring HJ Culture's productions to an off-Broadway theater in New York was postponed due to COVID-19, its shows have been staged abroad elsewhere.

“Rachmaninoff” featuring the original Korean cast will be performed in the Grand Theater of the Taipei Performing Arts Center from Oct. 13 to 22. The Taiwanese version of "The Little Prince" was staged at Wellspring Theater in Taiwan last October.

When he set up the company a decade ago, producers who introduced original works often emphasized their originality to appeal to audiences who were more familiar with large, licensed theater productions, Han recalled. However, there has since then been a shift in approach. Producers and directors now aim to appeal to audiences without relying on emphasizing originality. And although smaller, original works tend to appeal to a niche audience, they also have great potential to appeal to bigger audiences as well, Han said.

"It's only a matter of time," he said, "But a flood of smaller-scale and original works have been steadily building their strength and have the potential to make a mark internationally, much like K-pop and Korean films."