``Early in the morning, here in this unfamiliar city...'' The ``Rock Musical Line One'' begins as Fairy, a young, ethnic Korean girl from China, arrives in Seoul at the break of dawn, a wide-eyed stranger to the huge metropolis and full of dreamy expectations.
``All that can be seen is ugliness,'' Red Pants soon after deplores, once an ingenue to the big city herself with innocent dreams, now an investor trapped in a world of money and sexual jealousy.
``Line One,'' widely reputed to be one of the most representative of Korean musicals, quickly reveals itself to be something more than the usual candied, feel-good musical fed by the dozen to the public.
``The work is about the pain people suffer from the lack of help from others,'' explained Dr. Uwe Schmelter, a Goethe-Institut lecturer, at the opening performance in February of a new revision of the musical at the Hakchon-Blue Theater in Taehangno.
A fable of disillusionment in the modern city, the piece itself arrived here in 1994, as an adaptation of an unfamiliar foreign work ``Linie 1- Das Musikal,'' originally set in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Now after a thousand performances, nearly two hundred thousand attendees and six progressive revisions, the once alien work has become a fixed and familiar feature of the Korean theatrical scene, speaking in its own way for the ubiquity and universality of conflict and suffering in the world.
"From among some twenty productions being staged in cities around the world, this production has left the deepest impression on me,'' said Volker Ludwig the author of the musical at the special Sunday performance.
``While preserving the spirit of the original work, the Berlin situation has been superbly translated into the Korean situation by Kim Min-gee," he added, quick to praise the folk-rock singer responsible for arranging and producing the musical. "I think the constant development of material based on present everyday life and the live band appeal to the audience," Kim Min-gee said.
It's easy to see why the piece is so popular given its graft to modern day Korea and its pulsating, musical energy. On entry, speakers that loom precariously over the stalls catch the eye with distracting urgency. From the start, feral guitar riffs and piercing saxophone parts, assault the audience into ready and excitable submission.
``Tok-do is ours'' cries a pseudo-revolutionary commuter; ``I'm 18,000 won'' deadpans a boy in a nod to contemporary youth culture. Not only does the musical's cool-cut humor quickly appeal, it's spot-on references and insights, winking at everyday life and society, invite a knowing intimacy with those watching.
The actors sing and perform with verve and assured charisma, at turns hilarious and moving. Throughout the performance the audience regularly claps and cheers along, even stamping their feet in time with the music's beat.
This is all well and good. Musicals at their best spur the enthusiasm and participation of the audience. But this musical is no light-hearted, candy- centered crowd-pleaser to be confused with a typical Lloyd-Webber or Disney number. One cannot help but feel a little disquiet at the unquestioning enthusiasm that this essentially disillusioned work provokes.
``Line One'' is at its heart a dark and deeply critical theatrical piece, highly characteristic of Korean and German literature, pitted against the political and social wrongs that continue to dog the country. As a result, it is unnerving to find people cheering and clapping along to songs that openly detail the misery and despair of street-life in Seoul.
Earthworm, a homeless bum, sings of how his wife ran away after he beat her, yet the audience claps along to the melodic number regardless, seemingly oblivious to the lyric's purport. Perhaps misery and despair are all too familiar and well-worn a modernist slant for people now to register as disturbing. …