There are a lot of people in this country earning a living and making money from stories which involve the LGBT+ movement.
Look at some of the more successful Korean-produced musicals of the last decade or so:
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been produced annually since 2005, starring some of Korea’s more popular singer/actors, including Yoon Do-Hyun, Mr 오 필승 코레아 (‘Oh Pilseung Corea’, ‘To Victory, Corea’) himself;
- Thrill Me had a number of successful runs in Seoul from 2007 to 2014-15;
- Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, was first produced in 2014, and is apparently preparing for a new run;
- La Cage aux Folles had its first production in 2015;
- and Kinky Boots, the story of how a drag queen re-vitalizes a shoe factory in northern England, is on its second run.
Now, in a country like South Korea, which has a rabid anti-LGBT movement mainly headed up by the CCFs, it’s amazing that these musicals have any shelf life at all. But seriously – these plays are attracting some of Korea’s more prominent actor/singers, and entertainment management companies (which basically control who gets to sing or act in this country) are actually starting to promote the appearances of actors from their stables in these shows.
This is something which has fascinated me ever since I came back to Korea 3 years ago, and I’ve asked some of my friends in the LGBT+ community about this phenomenon. One has offered an explanation that I think explains some of the popularity: ‘It’s perfectly OK as long as people can treat it as some kind of fantasy, something unreal, that exists somewhere else. If they have to start thinking about it as a real live situation, then it becomes something uncomfortable.’ This perception is confirmed by one of Korea’s leading LGBT bloggers, the Kimchi Queen, who wrote, ‘Since it is a depiction of other people, sometimes in another country, the ‘depravity’ can be ignored, and the audience can focus on some truly good music.’
Another method of promoting these musicals is to focus on the performance of the actors themselves. For example, before Kim Dong Hwan undertook his first performance as Hedwig in 2011, he came out to the audience in his stage dress and made the following statement: ‘It’s an honor to star in ‘Hedwig’, and I think it will be remembered as a very meaningful day. I’ll do my best to put on a great performance as I’ve been practicing really hard so far. Please show support and love to Kim Dong Wan’s “Hedwig”.’
Can you hear the plea, ‘Please like me’?
Another example of this self-promotion was when Byun Yo Han took on the role in 2016. The interview he did focused completely on his performance, with quotes like:
‘I am happy to be cast among very distinguished senior actors. I don’t think it will be enough to promise that I will work hard to not ruin the reputation of this project and previous senior actors… “It would be a lie to say that there is no pressure. However, with each day that I become Hedwig, I strangely become more comfortable. I think I need to stay far away from the views and expectations of those around me.’
I don’t know about you, but I read, ‘I’m so vain, I prob’ly think this song is about me!’
The other tendency is to ‘universalize’ the stories of these shows, to say that they’re really about themes that we can all identify with. For example, when Oh Man Seok returned to the role of Hedwig in 2012, he offered these ‘pearls of wisdom’:
‘The show delves deep into the desire to be loved, and be accepted as who we are, said Oh.
“This musical tells us that to love someone is to accept him exactly the way he is,” Oh said.
“It also tells us that everyone deserves to be loved, and every individual is meaningful and important. I think that’s the essential message of this piece.”
This ‘universalizing’ can be a line of defense, as well. As evidence of this, when Jo Kwon was criticized for looking ‘too gay’ in his portrayal of Adam in Priscilla (the portrayal of a gay man being ‘too gay’ – can we say ‘oxymoron’?!?!?!), he responded with this tweet:
“You could think that it is just a gay show from the pictures, however, the musical ‘Priscilla’ is not just a musical that portrays homosexuals and transgenders’ views, it is a sincere musical that portrays family, friendship, love, paternal love and emotions,” wrote Jo.
He continued by saying that those who have misunderstandings should “come and see the show with an easy heart” and “stop criticizing.”
That’s funny – I hear in my head the melody of the last song from the first Public Image Ltd album, ‘Fodderstompf’. I realize this may not be to everyone’s tastes, so please feel free to stop listening and continue reading when you’re ready:
…But my point is (and I do have one) that focusing on the brilliance of performances and on ‘universals’ avoids the fact that these are LGBT STORIES! This cannot be avoided! Any ‘universal validity’ these stories have comes from the fact that LGBT+ people struggle with the same issues that the rest of the world – issues like self-acceptance, self-image, and vulnerability (Hedwig); defining and coming to terms with family (Priscilla, La Cage); finding oneself in relationships which can be manipulative (Hedwig, Thrill Me); and finding ways to survive and thrive economically (Priscilla, Kinky Boots).
Yet, there is something else in all these stories which is unique to the LGBT+ community and which has to be acknowledged by those who put on and watch these stories. All of them take place in atmospheres which are unfriendly, and often downright hostile to and dangerous for LGBT+ people. Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t had the chance to see these musicals, mainly because I’m ‘hangul-listically challenged’ (I’m very poor at using Korean), but I maintain that my point holds true for whatever language in which these musicals are produced. If the fact that these stories come from sexual minority cultures is played down or ignored, they become the epitome of ‘a noisy going or a clanging cymbal’. Or, to borrow words from the Bard, they become ‘a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.’
Now, I am willing to admit ignorance of how people involved in these productions may already be speaking and acting in support of the struggle for LGBT+ equality in Korea due to my being hangul-listically challenged. Therefore, to anyone involved in these productions who forcefully speaks out or is active in their support for the LGBT+ community in Korea, please do not take this as an attack on you. I applaud your efforts and stand with you in solidarity – well done!
That said, my only memory of celebrities coming to an LGBT+ event was the 2015 Korea Quuer Culture Festival (see the entry ‘My First Pride’, July 1, 2015), when two members of the cast of Chicago visited. I have a photo with Todd Buonopane to prove it:
However, if anyone is silent or hesitates on speaking out or acting for the LGBT+ community (especially if you have no reason to be ‘closeted’), take this as a challenge. It’s time for you to acknowledge the benefit you gain from helping to portray LGBT+ stories. It’s time to get off your butt, use your voice and presence in this society, and speak/act for LGBT+ rights! There are lots of events happening in Seoul and across the country where you can actively support the LGBT+ community. Find them, go to them, and make your presence felt.
If you still think it’s too dangerous or not worth your effort to speak and act, I’ll ask you: Do you think you should be helping to portray stories to which you don’t feel a connection? Is it appropriate for you to be profiting from ‘a gig’ when it portrays a slice of life in this society and this world that you don’t really care about? Is your heart where your treasure is?
These are questions only you can answer.
 Ilmare42 (2015, December 23) Jo Jung Suk, Byun Yo Han, Cho Seung Woo, and Yoon Do Hyun to Take Lead Role in “Hedwig” Musical. In soompi [online]. Accessed 22 September 2016 at http://www.soompi.com/2015/12/23/jo-jung-suk-byun-yo-han-cho-seung-woo-and-yoon-do-hyun-to-take-lead-role-in-hedwig-musical/.
 It was the Yoon Do-Hyun Band who recorded this sung, which became a fan anthem for the Korean football/soccer team during the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
 Musical Heaven (2008) 스릴미 (Thrill Me) [online], accessed 22 October 2016; and Kwon, M Y (2013, Aug 29) Two can play; in Korea Times [online], accessed 22 October 2016 at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/common/printpreview.asp?categoryCode=203&newsIdx=141940.
 Conservative Christian forces.
 Kimchi Queen (2012, July 7) 헤드윅! Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Seoul. In The Kimchi Queen [online]. Retrieved 22 September 2016 at http://thekimchiqueen.blogspot.kr/2012/07/hedwig-and-angry-inch-in-seoul.html.
 Melkimx (2011, 17 May). Kim Dong Wan Asks Fans to Support “Hedwig”. In Soompi [online]. Accessed 22 September 2016 at http://www.soompi.com/2011/05/17/kim-dong-wan-asks-fans-to-support-hedwig/.
 Hellohalcyon (2016, 20 February). Byun Yo Han to Make Musical Debut With “Hedwig”. In Soompi [online]. Accessed 22 September at http://www.soompi.com/2016/02/20/byun-yo-han-to-make-musical-debut-with-hedwig/.
 Thanks, Carly Simon!
 Lee, C (2012, 16 August) First Korean ‘Hedwig’ returns. In The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 22 September 2016 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20120816000709.
 Quoted in Kim, S H (2014, 14 July) Cross-dressing musical ‘Priscilla’ is no drag. In Korea Joongang Daily [online]. Accessed 22 September 2016.
 Thanks, Ellen DeGeneres!
 From I Corinthians 13:1. Unless otherwise noted, I take my Scripture references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
 From The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act V, Scene v.