From "Flower Drum Song" to "Miss Saigon," the representation of Asian cultures on the Broadway musical stage has been shaky, if certainly consistent.
Now a new Lincoln Center production -- deemed to be the first Korean-produced musical to be performed overseas -- continues that trend while aiming to provide a more authentic theatrical account of Asian history for a new generation of theatergoers.
"Hero: The Musical" tells the real-life story of An Chunggun (played by Sung Hwa Chung), a Korean independence activist responsible for the 1909 assassination of Ito Hirobumi (Sung Gee Kim), then a Japanese administer of power in Korea, just as Japan was preparing to annex the latter nation. Though An was imprisoned and subsequently executed, he is also said to have inspired various Japanese officials -- including prison guards and prosecutors -- through his humane spirit and kind demeanor.
Take a look at photos from "Hero: The Musical," then scroll down to keep reading:
Composer Sang Joon Oh and lyricist A Reum Han wrote "Hero: The Musical" in 2009 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of An's execution (described in the program as a "sacrificial death") lightening up what could have been an overtly grisly piece with fictitious, if symbolic, characters and rousing chorus numbers. The new $2.5 million production apparently went through extensive revisions before being transferred to New York. The end result is effective despite a number of fairly obvious flaws, like the use of pre-recorded tunes and what could possibly be one of the longest death sequences in the history of theater. References from earlier Western musicals -- its decidedly favorable stance on an enigmatic historical figure echoes "Evita," while several segments borrow from both "Les Miserables" and "West Side Story" -- occasionally feel more like cheap parody than homage.
Still, those normally put off by subtitled performances will find something to admire in "Hero: The Musical," even if it's only the impressive visual effects. Several members of the talented ensemble, including Eui Uk Jeong as a humorous Chinese restaurant owner, keep "Hero" from descending into downright morose territory, and Dong Woo Park deserves special praise for the inventive scenic design -- a colorful assemblage of cityscapes, forests, courtrooms and even a moving train.
A opening night fete drew both cast members and a bevy of international diplomats -- among them U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Permanent U.N. Representative from Korea Kim Sook -- who noted the significance of the show's vast Lincoln Center staging for the homeland of its creators.
"I wish I could give it the Tony Award for Best Musical," Ban told the crowd. "The musical comes to Lincoln Center at a very important time…the messages were very powerful. I think all of us can be heroes."
Though understandably winded after the nearly three-hour performance, the show's stars gushed after their New York debut.
"I was really moved and touched by the audience's reaction," Chung said. "Our time is calling for a hero, whether it's a politician or a religious leader… we need that person to look up to and respect."
Whether or not New York audiences will take to seeing a Korean musical remains to be seen, but the sheer enthusiasm of the cast and the whimsy of its creative team make "Hero: The Musical" worth a look despite its flaws.
"Hero: The Musical" plays Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater through Sept. 3. For more information, click here.