When “Aida” landed in Korea in 2005, musicals were not as popular as they are now, talent not as abundant and licensed local productions of hit Broadway shows not as big a business.

Fourteen years, 732 performances and 730,000 audience members later, anticipation for the musical’s final run — to kick off Nov. 13 at Blue Square Interpark Hall in central Seoul — is running high. It runs through Feb. 23, 2020.

“It’s pretty amazing to think that it was almost 15 years ago that we first came to do auditions, and here we are doing it again. Each time we’ve done it, we tried to make it better than before,” said Keith Batten, the associate director of the Korean production, on preparing for the show with what he called “the best cast we ever had.”

Batten has been part of the production team here as an associate director since the first performance in 2005. Over time, the show has learned from previous productions, improving with each new run, he said. 

Keith Batten (Seensee Company)
“We are always passing on information about how to deepen the show emotionally. And particularly for us (the Korean production), because of the translations. Each time we do it, we find slight adjustments that change the meaning of the line, or intentions,” he said, expressing confidence about the upcoming show.

Adapting to Korea

Batten, a visual artist and stage director, has worked on 80 theatrical productions across the world. He worked as an associate director of “Les Miserables” before Disney hired him to work on the international production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

When taking the helm of “Aida,” he met with the original director to ensure that he would take good care of the show.

“Being an associate director is an interesting job because you’re basically directing somebody else’s show. But the thing that’s great about it is when it’s a show like ‘Aida,’ you know that if you do it well, it will work, as opposed to doing an original show when you don’t know it will work,” he said.

“It gives you a different experience, so that you try to do it — in a way — harder to make it better than the original.”

An obvious difference between the original and Korean production was a cultural one. “You have to break through some of the cultural differences to tell the story; a Nubian princess can’t really act the same way as the Koreans act.”

But this provided an opportunity to add unique features to the show.

“When a touring show does the show in English, it’s not connecting with the (local) people in the same way, because different people are doing it,” he said.

“Aida,” with its subject matter of an imprisoned princess, war, suffering and reincarnation, may inherently appeal to Koreans, he noted.

A scene from “Aida” in 2016 (Seensee Company)
“What I found here is that there are a lot of elements in the musical of ‘Aida’ that people here understand more than in other places. For a number of historical reasons, a lot of what the country’s been through, they understand this idea of slavery and her situation being a slave and being captured. … The whole historical part,” he said.

Power of the cast

The title role of “Aida,” while tough, has provided the audience with an array of memorable performances.

It is one with which Ock Joo-hyun — a former K-pop singer and today one of most respected musical actresses in Korea — made a name for herself onstage.

“It was difficult to find someone who could sing Aida, act and dance, and she was brought in. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve been through this before.’ Where someone’s brought in because they have a name,” Batten said.

“I remember with Ock, she’s really worked hard, that’s why she went on to have a career. She was very smart, really listened, always taking notes and trying hard to be a good actor. She very easily could’ve been a superficial Aida, and gone back to her own world.”

The main role of Aida will be reprised by Yoon Gong-ju and Jeon Na-young, with Jeon taking the first crack at the role. Yoon played Aida in 2016.

Another returning cast member is singer-actress Ivy as Amneris, who like the original Korean Aida, also comes from a pop music background, though she did have years of experience by the time she auditioned for the role in 2016.

“I didn’t even know that she had come from that (pop music) experience. She could already act and sing and dance,” Batten said.

Ivy is sharing the role with Jeong Seon-ah, while Kim Woo-hyung and Choi Jae-rim will take up the role of Radames. Kim has played the role before but it is the first time for Choi.

Having actors with and without experience playing the role is an advantage, Batten said.

“(Yoon) can do things automatically but she has to ‘get into’ it again, deepen it. So while we’re doing that, the brand new one (Jeon) is watching us. Then she goes up and does it for the first time, and Aida with all the experience is able to look at it with fresh eyes because she sees somebody else trying to find it,” he said.

“So they (the two actors) are not locked into what is to be the final performance. … The new one will illuminate this for the more experienced actor.

“I think it really helps both performers. … It’s not a competition where they resent each other, but one where they can learn from each other,” he added.

By Yoon Min-sik ([email protected])