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[Herald Interview] Producer Oh Se-hyeok's journey from Seoul to Shanghai

By Park Ga-young

Published : May 3, 2023 - 16:50

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Producer and playwright Oh Se-hyeok speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at the Never Ending Play office on April 19. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Producer and playwright Oh Se-hyeok speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at the Never Ending Play office on April 19. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Producer and playwright Oh Se-hyeok's musical, "The Brothers Karamazov," based on the last novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, ended its run at the Shanghai Grand Theater on April 16. By coincidence, on the same day, the Korean version of the same musical, which premiered in 2018, happened to be midway through its fourth run in Daehagno, Seoul.

Set in 19th-century Russia, the musical covers the conflict between the children of Fyodor Karamazov: the abandoned sons of his first and second wives -- Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha -- and Karamazov's youngest son, Smerdyakov, who, despite being illegitimate, lived with his father. When Karamazov is murdered, the four sons begin to suspect one another.

"The Brothers Karamazov" was the first musical produced by the Shanghai Grand Theater. Dostoevsky's novel is popular in China, making it a prime location to host the musical. After considering productions from Russia and South Korea, the theater eventually went with Oh's production.

For Oh, the musical represents the simultaneous explosions in both talent and consumer interest in China's nascent musical theater landscape.

The playwright made his Chinese debut back in 2018 with a jukebox musical, "In the Mood for Sorrow," which he created over two months in China based on the songs of the musician Huang Shu-jun. Backstage, Oh worked with both Korean and Chinese technicians and specialists to bring the production to life. His interactions between the passionate Chinese newcomers and his production team reminded him of his own start in the theater, and the raw enthusiasm for the craft that had allowed him to achieve such success.

“After the last performance, I was so touched that I cried for an hour,” Oh said. That experience motivated him to focus on China, at a time when most musical theater creatives were trying to make it on either New York's Broadway or London's West End, both of which are seen as the global capitals of musical theater.

Actors perform the Chinese edition of Actors perform the Chinese edition of "The Brothers Karamazov" at the Shanghai Grand Theater. (Never Ending Play)

Upon returning to China after three years, Oh found that the world’s most populous country’s musical theater industry had evolved rapidly during his absence. “Actors who had great potential when I last saw them a few years ago have now realized that potential to become stars in their own right,” he said. He added that musical actors are so in demand that they are often cast in multiple musicals in different cities, flying from one production to the next every evening.

Oh hopes to cultivate a channel of cultural exchange between China and Korea, working in tandem with Chinese musical theater creatives to not only bring more Korean musicals to China, but also bring more Chinese musicals to Korea.

His company has already bought the Korean production rights for a Chinese musical called "King’s Table," which he hopes to stage in either late 2023 or early 2024. This marked the first time a Chinese musical had been sold overseas, a landmark moment for that country's musical theater industry.

"Going to Broadway would be nice, but I didn't have a specific and concrete dream about it. My greatest dream is that the productions made by Asian creators will continue to move back and forth between countries such as Korea, China and Japan," Oh added.

To achieve that dream, the 41-year-old aims to create an environment where writers, actors and other creators can focus on their work without the burden of financial struggles or job insecurity. With that goal, he founded Never Ending Play in 2021.

"I want to create a platform where writers, directors, composers and choreographers can develop, create, and stage performances with joy and freedom and I will support them wholeheartedly," he said.

Ever since he attended his first theater show, which led him to drop out of college, live theater has never stopped being a source of both joy and community for Oh.

"Back then, I was lonely and I had no real ambitions, but found myself overwhelmed by the joy of sharing this experience with the strangers who sat around me, bringing together people from all walks of life in a communal, shared experience," he explained.

"Some people go to temples or churches to find community and emerge rejuvenated. I hope theater-goers can also derive the energy they need to make it through the week from my productions."

Producer Oh Se-hyeok (first row, center) poses for photos with local staff and actors after the first performance of the Chinese edition of Producer Oh Se-hyeok (first row, center) poses for photos with local staff and actors after the first performance of the Chinese edition of "The Brothers Karamazov" at the Shanghai Grand Theater on March 31. The second run of the Chinese edition, which premiered in October last year, ran until April 16. (Never Ending Play)