INTERVIEW Kim Moon-jung, Charismatic Music Director Attuned to Musicals

When the lights go down, just before the show begins, she appears in the spotlight and greets the audience. She raises her head from the orchestra pit under the stage, turns around, and smiles. During the whole performance, she shows only the back of her head, but with her baton she has the audience in the palm of her hands. At a time when the Korean musical market is enjoying a boom, I met music director Kim Moonjung, probably its busiest person around these days.

Musical Director Kim Moon-jung says, “My stamina comes from the thrilling moments I experience with an actor or actress who is on the same wavelength.”

The musical industry in Korea has recorded tremendous growth in recent years. Since “The Phantom of the Opera” was staged in Korean in 2001, ticket sales have increased 17–18 percent every year. The notion of the “starving artist” is now forgotten, at least in the musical market. The number of musicals staged for adult audiences in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province reaches 160 per year. This alone puts Korea’s musical market among the five biggest in the world. A leading figure in this musical big bang, Kim Moon-jung has been music director for numerous successful licensed productions, such as “Mamma Mia!,” “Elizabeth,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Mozart,” “Evita,” “Les Misérables,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Rebecca,” as well as the original Korean musical “The Last Empress.”

Success and Failure
Won Jong-won You’re very busy as usual, aren’t you? Or are you perhaps less busy, as you’re doing mostly encore shows this year?
Kim Moon-jung With one show after another, TV appearances, and teaching at university, I’ve had a busy schedule, but I'm a bit more relaxed these days. It gives me a boost to think that so many people love our productions. A show is meaningless without an audience.
Won Music director of musicals is not a common profession. How did you choose this work?
Kim With one show after another, TV appearances, and teaching at university, I’ve had a busy schedule, but I'm a bit more relaxed these days. It gives me a boost to think that so many people love our productions. A show is meaningless without an audience.
Won When did you see your first musical?
Kim In the eighth grade. “Guys and Dolls” was very popular at the time. We went to see it as a school excursion. It was a comedy and I remember enjoying it very much.
Won That was the mid-1980s, and private theatrical companies were competing to stage various adopted musicals.
Kim Now that I think about it, the music for the musicals wasn’t performed live as it is today.
Won You studied applied music at university, didn’t you?
Kim That’s right. After graduation, I worked as a keyboard session player, and in 1992, I happened to play piano for “A Chorus Line.” It didn’t pay much, but I was enthralled with the freedom of the stage, compared to the stereotypical work I had done for advertisements. I found the songs attractive because, being much longer than 4–5 minute pop songs, they had plenty of room for expression of various emotions. That’s why I started working on musicals whenever the chance came. Then in 1997, I joined the production team of “The Last Empress” and began to work mainly on musicals. I was chosen by Kolleen Park, the music director, and really enjoyed working with her. Later, Yun Ho-jin, CEO of A-Com, the production company, and director of “The Last Empress,” named me music director. His acknowledgment meant a lot to me and it’s a connection that I value.

Memory of the First LA Performance
“The Last Empress” marked the birth of Korea’s musical industry. The musical depicts the tragic death of the wife of King Gojong in the late 19th century when the Joseon Dynasty was nearing its end amid Japanese imperial aggression. It has been a hit every time it was staged thanks to the epic spectacles based on the traditional Korean aesthetic and expression of sentiment highlighted by lyrical songs and fantastic stage art and costumes. As its music director, Kim Moon-jung earned acclaim both domestically and in America and England.
Won What’s your most memorable experience as a music director?
Kim I still vividly remember the performance of “The Last Empress” in Los Angeles in 2003. I was put in charge of the big orchestra simply because I knew the piece better than others. In America, there are musicians’ unions, so local musicians have to be hired for performances. I still feel nervous when I recall that time. This might sound strange, but I decided not to speak English. If I spoke poor English, I thought I would lose my charisma as music director and be unable to control the musicians. So I used an interpreter. That’s how nervous I was. Some musicians were amenable from the beginning but with others the tension remained till the end. When the show was over, however, the musicians all stood up and clapped. It was a great moment that made me feel proud.

“I want more people to appreciate our original musicals. I even dream of musicals sparking a new hallyu [Korean Wave]. I think we can make it happen, if we keep working hard at it.”

Won Is there any show that left you feeling unsatisfied?
Kim “Organ in My Heart” is an original Korean musical for which I composed the music. I was proud of the work, and it received many awards but was not a success in ticket sales. I would like to put it on stage again some time, but I’m not sure if that’s possible. I still dream of it.
Won You received the composition award at the Korea Musical Awards for that work. But since then, you have focused much more on working as a music director.
Kim I still compose pieces. I have this idea of creating a musical using Korean trot music [a genre of Korean pop music dating back to the early 1900s].
Won Is box office success important to you?
Kim A musical grows from the soil of popular culture. Once the audience turns away from a show, it’s hard to stage it again, partly because the production costs are so high.

Judge on a TV Audition Program
Won The recent audition show “Phantom Singer” on cable channel JTBC was a big success. It adopted the format of audition shows that are popular around the world, and featured many contestants with outstanding abilities. You were also very charismatic as a judge.

Scenes from a rehearsal for the musical “Les Misérables.” In the right photo, music director Kim Moon-jung (far right) talks with the orchestra members.

Kim Musicals have become very popular, with more works staged and more actors and actresses working in this field, so I was glad to appear on the show. I was pleased that it was so popular. My life hasn’t changed much because of the show, but these days, people recognize me on the street and I greet them happily. Though I was a judge, I thought that as a music director, I could help the participants to grow. I was touched by those who did in fact grow during the show. Some of them I’d like to work with in the future.
Won Who was the candidate you felt the most sorry for?
Kim It was Lee Jun-hwan, a middle school student. He was very good, but because the final purpose was to make an operatic pop group of four, we had to give him up halfway. We all felt sorry to let him go.

Won Are you going to participate next season?
Kim I’ve received an offer. I was with the show from the beginning, and the process of discovering new talent was rewarding, so yes, I’ll probably join the next season.

Envisioning a Bright Future for Korean Musicals
Won What are you working on now?
Kim I get a lot of offers, but I’m more interested in doing original Korean musicals than foreign works. I’m working on new musical versions of “Sandglass,” a beloved television drama from the ‘90s, and “Gwanghwamun Love Song,” which features songs by the late composer Lee Yeong-hoon. Popular musicals such as “Sopyonje,” “Rebecca,” “Rudolf,” and “Mata Hari” are also scheduled for encore performances.
Won You have an aspiration to work as music director of performances overseas, don’t you?
Kim I have a strong desire to mount original Korean musicals on international stages. Anyone in the Korean musical industry would probably feel the same way. I want to show the global audience how much Korean musicals have grown and how much they are loved. Of course, there are many foreign musical fans in Korea and some visit Korea expressly to see musicals, but I want more people to appreciate our original musicals. I even dream of musicals sparking a new hallyu [Korean Wave]. I think we can make it happen, if we keep working hard at it.”
While musicals in the West were influenced by popular theater around 1900 — for example, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and burlesque — and established as a genre of family entertainment, the Korean musical is rooted in the styles of traditional performing arts, such as folk songs, mask dances (talchum), shamanic rites (gut), pansori narrative songs, and akgeuk, the Korean musical theater comparable to Western operettas. This background distinguishes Korean musicals from their Western counterparts on Broadway and the West End, and it is their uniqueness that attracts overseas audiences. Kim Moon-jung has greatly contributed to upgrading the performance of many licensed musicals from other countries, and perhaps it’s natural that she has such a strong love for original Korean productions.
The future of Korean musicals, as Kim dreams of it, is very bright indeed. That’s what makes us cheer on her aspirations and work as an artist, and eagerly await her next production.

Won Jung-min Popular Music Columnist; Representative, Cine Play
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