If you happen to read my new roommate Becca‘s journal – and you probably should be reading her, she writes much more frequent and entertaining reviews than I do – then you may have been following our Misadventures on and off Broadway, in which PEOPLE COULD DIE (but thankfully don’t) marital problems are fixed by dreaming about your husband’s white knight complex, child geniuses are child geniuses and lunatics are inexplicably from Louisiana. If you had been following these, and you heard we were planning to see Hero: The Musical, of which all we knew about beforehand was that it was the “first Korean Broadway-style musical to be shown overseas”, you may or may not have been waited with baited breath to hear how awesomely ridiculous it was.
Sorry to disappoint you all, but it was just simply awesome. Easily the best musical I’ve seen since moving to New York (though with Spider-Man and Wonderland it had little competition), and among the best I’ve seen. The music, the cast, the set and lighting design, and oh, the choreography all unfaultable, and we both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. A fictionalised account of real events, if I had to describe it in terms of other musicals, I’d say it was a Korean Les Mis.
No, don’t go away, I said it was awesome!
Set in 1909, when Korea was a protectorate of Japan, following the Eulsa Treaty of 1906 and just before the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910, Hero is the story of the freedom fighter An Chunggon‘s (I am using spellings provided in the program) assassination of Ito Hirobumi; the Japanese politician who forced the signing of the treaty and became the first Resident General of Korea. I have nearly no context for this; my knowledge of Korean history is entirely based on lst night’s show, Capital Scandal, and wikipedia, so I’m going to treat this show as an entirely self contained story, because that’s how I saw it.
This is also the first stage performance I’ve ever seen in a language other than English, and with supertitles projected over the stage – yep, that’s right, I’ve never been to an Opera – which would have been very useful in Spider-Man, let me tell you. At least in Hero, I could hear the words they were singing, even if I didn’t understand them.
The first thing that was great about this was the character-stroke-historical person biographies in the Playbill. We could spend the time before curtain-up reading about the characters and personalities we were about to see, and particularly eying up who we were going to love. Like, the spy who disguises herself as a geisha toget close to Iko and attempt an assassination. Or the “brusque taciturn” sharpshooter who gets to sing a song with the “humourous and talkative character who uses local dialect” – obviously a bromance in the making!
As the overture starts playing, gunshots ring out, as appear as bullet holes projected onto the screen down over the stage. Just as I’m leaning to Becca to say “that looks exactly like the Big Dipper,” the bullet holes morph into points of light and fall back against a backdrop of stars. So it’s lucky I dind’t say that out loud, else I’d look like a fool.
Taken from the part of the song before they cut off their fingers. Image from Hancinema.net
The stars rise on a forest in Novkievsk, and An-Chunggun comes forward with his band and sing a stirring opening number about their plans to fight to free their country from Japanese oppression. As a symbol of their resolve to fight, they cut off their ring fingers. It’s a dramatic and moving opening number, but I can’t help feel that the title has a disservice done to it in translation – “Cutting off the Ring Finger” scans a little too jauntily for the song’s content.
Meanwhile, in an Ochiya in Japan, Geishas sing a beautiful upbeat song about how they laugh to hide their sorrow, and keep on singing and dancing, because love is awful (Geisha). This sets the scene for Komura Jutaro and Ito Hirobumi to sing about what a beautiful treasure house Chosun is (Chosun is a Treasure House), and how it has been fantastically looted of all the treasures and continues to be so, a convenient segue from which they can sing about Manchuria and how that must be looted. It’s all delightfully upbeat and exciting, the stripping off local territories for pretty things.
Enter the real star of the show: Sorhui, played by the astonishingly talented Sang Eun Lee, who is classically trained and you can tell. In the first of many songs to move me to tears, she sings about witnessing the death of the Empress at the hands of assassins. It’s a strong, beautiful song, and is packed full of how gracious and beautiful the Empress was, and how Sorhui loved and misses her (I Remember You, Gracious Queen). This will be the first of three songs Sorhui will sing exclusively about the Empress and her love for her. We had been worried, reading the program, that Sorhui would be involved in some sort of love quadrangle, but no! All she cares about is her queen and her love for her. And so she commits herself to going to Japan and getting close to Ito, she says in order to gather information for the resistance. And not to kill him at all, nope.
She is, Becca remarks, basically Hero‘s Jing’er, and we both agree pretty quickly that we would watch an entire musical that just consisted of her singing about her love for her Queen.
But we are proved wrong! For suddenly we are on the streets of Vladivostok, and resistance fighters are running from Japanese policemen! It’s a full on proper Broadway Musical us-vs-them number with abrupt, urgent beats and tight tight choreography as the freedom fighters flee from the police who chase them with truncheons. The policemen are led by Wada, who must be the most hard-done by performer in the whole production. Not only does his actor, Kim Young Wan, not get a biography in the Playbill, and not opnly is the character’s name incorrectly given as “Wada Kim” in the castlist, making us think that at first he wasn’t listed, but he’s not credited for any of his songs, either. Of the two he leads, one is listed as an instrumental, and one is credited to another character.
To add insult to injury, I can’t find a decent picture of him online, which is a shame, because of all the excellent costumes, his is my favourite. To make sure we know, without a doubt, that he’s a bad guy, he’s clothed all in black leather with red lining and trim. EVIL red trim! With a well oiled EVIL John Travolta quiff! And EVIL black trousers tucked into EVIL knee length black boots. And he sings about how he wants to catch those Korean bastards. Like a Falcon in the Dive, this he swears by the Stars.
I am, for the second time, in love. But it won’t be the last time, and the next one comes just as quickly.
Vladivostok is home to Wangwei’s Chinese Restaurant, and is where the resistance movement meet to enjoy the best mandu dumplings in the world. Wanwei himself sings with U Toksun about how they love dumplings because they hunger for their mother’s love, but I’m not really paying attention to them, because my eye is caught by another trenchcoat on stage; Cho Tosen (Hwee Cho) has had his dumpling stolen by Yu Tongha (Jin Woong Lim) and he’s being strong and bad tempered about it. Yes, this is the stoic gunslinger I was promised; all is right with the world of predictable Debi-beloved archetypes.
There is also Lingling, Wangwei’s adorable little sister, in braids and shorter than everyone else, who is clearly enamoured of An Chunggon and… that’s about it, sadly, given how adorable the actress is. She has more characterisation in the program than in the story.
Back to Japan, where Sorhui’s plot to get close to Ito is working, and she’s rapidly becoming his favourite geisha, after much creepy old man heavy breathing on his part. Ito sings about how he’s old, and Manchuria might be the last thing he does, and after the world’s most rapid costume change ever, Sorhui is once again breathtaking as she sings another song about what she must do for the sake of her Empress. Once again, I well up. Ito decides to take Sorhui with him on his planned trip to Harbin.
Meanwhile, while fleeing from Wada, An Chunggan has to hide by pretending to kiss Lingling, which instantly results in a song about how much she loves him. If it wasn’t so tacked on as a romantic plot, it would be creepy, given how he’s twice her age.
Seriously, the dancing in this show is amazing. Becca and I decide that we would see a show about Sorhui’s love for her Empress, is it were interspersed with chase scenes between Japanese policemen and Korean resistance fighters.
This chase results in the freedom fighters being tracked down to Wangwei’s place, and the poor dumpling chef is beaten to death while he sings bravely about how he will never betray (Like a Great Mountain that Doesn’t Shake). Wangwei’s death is the catalyst for An Chunggun to sit in a chapel with the wierdest tie-dye stained glass window I’ve everr seen, and sing a song of great soul-seeking manpain, and a ghostly visitation from his mother, who tells him that to die for his country is a great and noble thing.
At this point, I start to wonder why his mother is appearing in ghostly visitations, when my own mother turns up in the theater to tell me that all mothers have the ability to show up in ghostly visitations when they’re still alive. This is the point of mothers. I acknowledge this, and ask her to leave, because she’s speaking too loudly for a theater.
An Chunggun gathers together U Toksun, Cho Toson, You Tongha and Lingling, and they vow to kill Ito Hirobumi for crimes agains Korea. To commemorate the decision, or maye to mark the end of the first act, they take a photograph together.
END OF FIRST ACT.
Becca and I turn to each other with faces of sheer glee and we gush forever about Wada and Sorhui and how we expected more bromance between U Toksun and Cho Toson, who has so far been seemingly closer to the young Yu Tongha than the other.
As if they heard us up in the circle, the second act opens up on the four buddies having a sharpshooting competition, complete with An Chunggun mentoring Yu Tongha while U Toksun and Cho Toson are bantery and brusque at each other, respectively.
When news of Iko’s plan to take the train to Harbin arrives from Sarhui, the team decides to split up, with U Toksun and Cha Toson waiting for the train at Caijiagou, while An Chunggun and Yu Tongha go to Harbin. The details of where he’ll be (the fifth carriage, wearing a white handkerchief) sound remarkably specific. Becca and I agree, this sounds like there’ll be complications.
But first, a break to Japan, and Ito’s departure with Sarhui, which is partly to show us that they’re doubling up security to ensure his safety, but mostly for Japaneses soldiers to march and sing about the Japanese flag, being “red as blood, on white as a pure heart.” This, it is decided is much much more symbollic than “red for the blood of the innocent, blue for how sad it makes you feel.”
It occurs to me as I type that last, that neither Becca nor Heather in their reviews of Turn off the Dark, mention that this is what Arachne actually sung in order to get Peter Parker to wear the costume she made for him. This is why I’m writing my own recap of this one. Which I’ve just realised is ridiculously long. OH WELL.
Last comparison to that trainwreck of a musical, I promise!
ANOTHER CHASE. This one just as awesome and just as fantastic as the other two, except that An Chunggu is distracted by Lingling (BECCA: “Why is she even there?”) and Wada shoots at him, only for her to throw herself in the path of the bullet.
See, that’s why she’s there. To die and to sing to An Chunggun about how she loves him. Then Yu Tongha turns up and sings about he loves her, and that takes us by just as much surprise as the way he tells An Chunggun he can’t go with him to Harbin, because An Chunggun spent the entire song cradling Lingling’s body, and it’s his turn now, or something.
Becca starts humming The Price.
So after this very dramatic fridging of a character I honestly thought I’d like from the program, we cut to Caijiagou station, where U Toksun is nervous and Cho Tosun is far too stoic and manly to be frightened, dammit. What follows is a wonderfully charming scene in which U Toksun starts singing and dancing to Arirang, a traditional Korean folksong.this song stands out because in a show full of by-the-numbers (if excellent) broadway-esque songs, the inclusion of a traditional Korean melody changes the feel somewhat and reminds us that we’re not watching an American production set in Korea.
Also, watching Cho Tosun trying to force himself not to dance against the wishes of his own body is glorious. We were both sadly disappointed when this song did not make the soundtrack we bought in the foyer.
The train they’re waiting for finally arrives, and they count down to the fifth, only to find there is no fifth carriage. Unable to carry out their duty, I am sad we never saw any proof that Cho Tosun was such a crack shot.
I’ve just realised I’ve said nothing about the sets – they are wonderful, and endearigly simple. A few bricked panels move around to make train platforms, buildings to chase through, and a West Side Story esque scaffold to run and jump over. Combined with excellent lighting, the settings shft so organically I hardly noticed them so far, is why.
But I certainly notice them at the next scene; where an entire train carriage is on stage, at first behind a screen with falling snow, through which only a silhouette can be made out, allowing the stagehands to remove the side of the carriage to see inside to Ito’s cabin.
There, Sorhui attempts to carry out her own assassination, but Ito stops her, telling her tht if he wasn’t sharp enough to tell when his companion is trying to kill him, he wouldn’t have lived this long. He declines to kill her, though, saying she wouldn’t take his life after he’s spared hers.
So we move back to an exterior shot of the carriage, and Sorhui sings her most haunting refrain yet, about how sad she is that she couldn’t do this for her Empress (Why do I Feel This Way?). It’s a beautiful, powerful song and once again, doesn’t touch on Sarhui’s feelings for anything other then her country and her Empress, and her sorrow (not her guilt). She prays that she will be reborn as a child of Chosun again, and throws herself from the train.
I decide that obviously this means she will be reincarnated as Cha Song Joo, which explains why that latter’s favourite form of stress relief is to assassinate Japanese officials.
Back to the chapel of the tye-die window, and An Chunggun sings a song of gathering-his-strength, before going to Harbin station, where Ito is just arriving, to a heavily guarded station staffed by both Japanese and Russian policemen.
You can tell they’re Russian because they have red wigs and false noses on. Also they have a distinctly different dance from the Japanese – another example of the excellent choreography. Anyway, An Chunggun shows up and shoots Ito dead.
The trial is a full assembly number, as An Chunggen lists every single one of the crimes Ito committed against Korea, while the press and court visitors and his three fellow prisoners sing Who is Guilty?. U Toksun and Cho Toson are sentenced to hard labour. An Chunggen to death.
(Becca: “Did they forget to sentence Yu Tongha?”)
In his cell, An Chunggun and the ghost of Ito sing about how they each did what they thought was best for their country (Destiny) – a beautiful song musically, but one which would have been more moving had Ito been shown to have any more depth than just plundering treasures greedily. It’s still a glorious song, though, and I enjoy it immensely, as I do the next duet between An Chunggen and his prison guard Chiba, about their mutual desire for peace in Asia. An Chunggen writes a piece to Chiba : “To Devote One’s Life to One’s Country Is the Duty of a Soldier.” Because we’ve alredy invoked Cha Song Joo tonight, it is agreed that a copy of this hangs framed on Na Yeo Kyeung’s wall.
I’m not done crying, though. Because An Chunggun’s mother sings a gorgeous lament while he puts on the shroud she made for him, about how much she loves him and longs to be there with him, and how proud she is that he’s dying for his country. This lady has an amazing voice, and I’m in tears before the end.
The last number is An Chunggen’s devotion to his country and of his life to the cause. Sadly I can’t read any of the lyrics, because he’s standing on a scaffold in the vertical middle of the stage, wearing a bright white shroud in the middle of so many spotlights I have my hand up to prevent retina burn. Becca has no such visual issues, and she tells me it was all very Jesus Christ Superstar.
We came out of the theater with huge grins of joy on our faces, and obviously I had to pick up the soundtrack (sadly without lyric translations in the CD case, but I can live). Thi swas easily the best performance I’ve seen while in New York and if you get the chance, I highy recommend it!
Hero: The Musical is showing at the David Koch theater in Lincoln Center until September 3rd.
All pictures, unless otherwise noted, from the Musical’s Facebook Page.
This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.