The East side story
'The Last Empress,' the first Asian musical to hit the world stage, opens in Los Angeles this weekend - the latest in a surge of Asian art around the US.
KOREATOWN, LOS ANGELES — On a rare rainy day in L.A., 9-year-old Andrew Park is singing his heart out in a rehearsal studio behind the Radio Korea offices. An impressive Korean soprano guides him through a scene for the chorus. His mother, Il Soo Park, watches nervously from the back of the bare studio. Her English is limited, but her conviction is firm. "Andrew needs to know his culture," she says. "I want him to be in this show, to know where he came from and what it means."
Andrew's mother is not the only one with a cultural mission. "The Last Empress," the show in which her boy has snagged a spot, is the product of a man whose vision is "to show the West the beauty and depth of our traditions and stories." Ho-Jin Yun is the director and creator of "Empress," the first - and to date, only - Broadway-style Asian musical on the world stage.
It opens this weekend in L.A. on the second stop of what Mr. Yun calls a tour to show the lessons his deep and ancient culture offer a deeply insecure world.
"The West is running out of stories," Yun says with a smile, aware of his exaggeration but serious nonetheless. "On the other hand, we have thousands of years to draw from. The time is ripe for our stories to take center stage."
Yun may have a point. The West has been welcoming Asian culture for several centuries, at least since Chinese porcelain first appeared on 18th-century European dining tables. But "The Last Empress" seems to be riding a particularly powerful wave of interest in Asian culture.
Nearly a dozen museums from California to Texas, New York, and Florida have major Asian-themed exhibits under way or about to open. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco just moved to a new $160 million home, the Houston Museum of Fine Art just opened the first full US survey of Japanese photography, and the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach offers a serious examination of the impact of Japanese animé on Western culture.
"There is a romance between the two cultures," says Paul Holdengraber, director of the Institute for Art and Cultures at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Particularly right now, perhaps as a result of being hurt at home, we are seeing how big and capacious the world really is. And we have a yearning to know more about 'the other.' "
The lavish, operetta-style show, sung entirely in Korean, tells the story of Queen Min, who in 1895 helped move "the hermit kingdom" from centuries of isolation into contact with the rest of the world. "We were a small country whose very survival depended on making large nations look at and understand each other," Yun says. This true story, which ends with the queen's assassination, "has much to show about the importance of unity in the face of threatening powers."
Across town from where the children are rehearsing (the show uses local children as extras at every stop), a flurry of unpacking and construction is going on at Hollywood's Kodak Theater.
Just mounting the massive show - with its more than 600 authentic Korean costumes and 200 wigs and hats - is a lesson in cross-cultural communication, says Yun. Ask him what his biggest challenge is at the moment, and he's very practical.
"The unions," he says with a sigh. The show normally takes five days to mount. It will be a miracle if they get it done in time, he says, given that his stagehands aren't allowed to touch anything once it's on the stage. Everything must be done with hand signals. "They don't speak English, and the locals don't speak Korean," says Yun with a Korean expression that sounds remarkably like, "Oy!"
Local politics aside, the set itself is a bear to assemble in each new city. Cliques of stagehands wander onstage beneath brilliantly decorated banners, muttering about the dozens of complicated light displays. But the lighting is nothing compared with the mainstage.
At the center of the vast main set is a raked turntable, powered by six motors, which gives the impression of two opposing land masses in constant collision. "This play is about the evening of the Yi Dynasty in Korea amid the swell of Western imperialism," says set designer Dong Woo Park. "These two stages revolving against each other give the feeling of Korea in the midst of this great swell." The assembly is so difficult that the show now has two complete sets, which travel in rotation in order to facilitate the installation in each new venue.
Then there is the tinkering that keeps the show fresh for each new audience. Some is routine, but other changes are big. For instance, when "The Last Empress" traveled to London earlier this year, performers sang the opera in English for the first time.
"We wanted the audience to understand and not be put off," says the show's star, Korean soprano Taewon Yi Kim. Educated in America, fluent in English, Ms. Kim says that her emotions were closer to the surface when she sang in English. But she believes that the decision to perform in the original Korean now that the show is in Los Angeles - with its sizable Korean population - is the right one. "It's truer to the story," she adds.
The director has also made some new changes to the script for its Los Angeles run. Yun realized Westerners who didn't know the story wouldn't understand why, for example, soldiers were rioting. "We had to show some of the background, explaining that the soldiers weren't paid enough and how the merchants were wasting money on geishas and things like that," says Yun, who wrote some new songs that will debut here.
Tinkering is one thing, but Yun says he will not compromise the show's essential Korean character. "We had to work carefully with the music and costumes to make sure that Western audiences could appreciate them," says Yun, "but we didn't want them to lose their uniqueness." The team originally sought the composer of successful Broadway shows such as "Les Misérables," but ultimately opted for a Korean. "We wanted to keep the tonalities and musical rhythms that make it Korean," he says.
Authenticity is a challenge in some practical ways, as well. "Those wigs and costumes weigh so much," says singer Kim with a laugh, who figures she performs each night wearing more than 20 pounds of costumes and wigs.
Down in the wig department, the various headdresses are being set out for cleaning and preparation. Queen Min's wedding headgear looks as if it could walk on its own, what with the stiff dragon spears that anchor the ramrod straight black hair and the wildly colorful, animated baubles that bring the construction to life.
"I can't bend down when I'm wearing it," says Kim, adding that this limitation actually works well with her character. "She's the queen after all, so she doesn't really have to bow her head to anyone."
In another part of the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the Kodak Theater, wardrobe mistresses are steaming and hanging heavy, elaborately brocaded silks and wools.
An assistant pulls out one elegant gown after another, pointing out that the designs are faithful reproductions from the turn of the 20th century. "This is Queen Min's wedding dress," says Kyung Jin Baek, a student of the prominent designer, Hyung Sook Kim, who created the show's costumes. "All these were carefully researched," she adds through a translator. "They are very good reproductions of what the real queen wore."
The show's producer, Heehwan Lee, walks among the costumes as they are unpacked. He runs his hand over the brilliantly striped robes worn by the Shaman during a fertility rite and mulls over what he hopes audiences will get from the show in today's climate.
He opts for a particularly Western image: "This show will not only shake them," he says, "but stir them as well."