A genre historically dominated by males, there has always been a dearth of meaty female roles in musical theater. In the second half of 2021, six out of 41 musicals featured female leads with only one having an all-female cast.
Meanwhile, musical theater audiences continue to be largely female. In 2022 research from local ticketing platform Interpark, 75 percent of theatergoers were female.
This spring season’s performances are seeing the industry warm up to more female-centric narratives as two musicals “Lizzie” and “Frida,” both with all-female casts, opened back-to-back last month in Seoul.
The blistering rock ‘n’ roll musical “Lizzie” is a 120-minute show sustained by four female actors.
The plot is based on the real figure Lizzie Borden (1980-1927) and the infamous 1982 ax murder case of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts.
The musical, for the most part, stays true to actual events. The rest of the characters — Lizzie’s older sister Emma Borden; the Borden family’s maid Bridget Sullivan; and Lizzie’s best friend Alice Russell — are all real figures who testified during Lizzie’s trial.
However, the show has reimagined the century-old tale with modern touches and feminist twists that portray Lizzie as a victim of misogyny instead of a perpetrator.
The musical also relays the theme of female solidarity that fights against the sexist, ageist and homophobic voices in society.
This central message is not only delivered through songs and dialogue but also through costume changes. It is truly a cathartic moment when the ladies rip off their pioneer dresses and unleash their hair out of tightly pinned buns to reflect their darkly united minds.
The thrilling music and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt can not go unmentioned. Incorporating hard rock and soft rock, the numbers can be tender in one scene and then absolutely savage in others.
The use of standing microphone used in the first act is significant as well. The image of four women belting the same songs into their own standing mics sparsely spread across the stage relays a sense of common loneliness and pain that the characters suffer before they come together at the end of the show.
The real celebration of their solidarity begins once the show is over.
One of the longest curtain calls in musical theater, the actors give it their all while singing all the iconic numbers of the show. And with audiences all on their feet, jumping and clapping, the scene is nothing short of a mini rock concert.
“Lizzie” premiered off-Broadway at the Living Theater in New York in 2009. The show was first performed in Korea two years ago. After seeing rave reviews, “Lizzie” is back for a second production with a new onstage 6-piece band on a larger stage.
“Lizzie” is performed every day except Mondays at Doosan Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul, through June 12.
The new musical by one of the country’s most prominent musical production companies EMK also showcased an all-female cast upon its premiere last month.
Inspired by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the musical “Frida” narrates the tumultuous life of the artist.
Primarily known for her self-portraits, Kahlo is one of the most celebrated artists today. She has movies, books, museum exhibitions — and now, a musical in Korea. The New York Times describes her as “among the most overexposed artistic figures of all time.”
Her intrigue can be traced back to her countless sufferings.
During her childhood, Kahlo suffered from polio and a serious streetcar accident that left her with lifelong disabilities. She married muralist Diego Rivera twice, went through a miscarriage and lost her right foot due to gangrene. But despite her physical struggles, Kahlo created masterpiece paintings throughout her entire life.
Covering all these events and more, the message of the musical “Frida” is in the title of Kahlo’s last painting: “Viva la Vida” or “Long Live Life.”
Through Kahlo’s will to live despite all her strife, the show relays the message of celebrating life even with its sorrows and hardships.
An iconic moment in the show is when Kahlo throws off her corset that had been supporting her weak spine to express freedom from her physical limitations as well as giving a nod to the local “escape the corset” feminist movement.
The musical is outside the standard repertoire of musicals in the best ways possible.
The entire show is told through the form of a staged interview/music show. Kahlo is on set of a television show called “Frida’s Last Night Show” where she recounts her past to a live studio audience.
This unique concept along with high-tech stage design, a ravishing pop and rock-inflected score, chic costumes and special effects that highlight the climatic moments makes “Frida” one of the trendiest live theater shows in town.
Powerhouse actors like Choi Jeong-won and Broadway actor Kim So-hyang play the title role of Frida Kahlo.
The other roles are the show’s host Reflejar and the artist’s inner spirits Memoria which represents life and Destino who represents death. The three also appear in different roles, including male roles, for different parts of Kahlo’s life.
“There were male actors during initial readings, but they were gradually replaced with females in the process of progressing the musical,” said vice president of EMK Musical Company Kim Ji-won during the show’s press conference in March. “Since all four characters ultimately express who Frida is, it made more sense for all the actors to be the same sex as Frida.”
Being the first production of a new musical, the show lacks in some areas, mainly because it packs so many major events of Kahlo’s life into just 110 minutes.
To keep the scenes rolling, Kahlo is constantly left to explain herself — her emotions, reasons for her actions and so on — in a deluge of lines that makes the musical feel like a visual audiobook at certain points of the show. Kahlo’s story fails to be actually “felt” by the audience.
The first public performance of “Frida” was at Daegu International Musical Festival in 2020. After receiving positive reviews, EMK took on the official production of the show. It officially premiered early March.
“Frida” runs through May 29 at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Jongno District, central Seoul.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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