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When Arirang rings far and wide

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence, a musical 20 years in the making finally comes to life

Written by
Hye Won Kim
“We must neither forgive nor forget.” These are the words of author Jo Jung-rae, author of the highly acclaimed 12 volume epic novel on which this musical is based. It chronicles Korea’s modern history, namely that of the struggle under Japanese colonization. Seizing on the book’s popularity,
several playwrights and television series writers have attempted to adapt the heart-wrenching story.
While the novel was written in 1990, it was released as a book series in 1995. Jo handwrote the 20,000 pages and approximately 4 million characters himself. In interviews, he remarks that “to touch someone with
words is to move a jaded and apathetic soul, and to do so we need to work at least twice as hard as they do.” The novel, which depicts the lives of everyday people rebelling, plotting, or surrendering to the exploitation
of the Japanese from the era of colonization to independence, became a bestseller with an additional 380,000 copies sold.
Years in the making, Seensee Company’s producer Park Myung-sung (known for Aida and Mamma Mia!) spent three years transforming the novel into a play and writing 50 songs for the musical component. First copyrighted in 2013, it has been a long two years for all parties involved.
They, fortunately, do not put the entire 36 years of history into one musical. Unlike the vast volumes of the original masterpiece, Arirang the musical ends in the late 1920s. Instead, it focuses on the character of Gam Gol-daek and his hardships. As punishment for his debt of 20 won, his son gets sold to Hawaii as a station porter and his daughter Su-guk is entangled in a web of love affairs tainted by colonization and strife. The theme song that echoes throughout is inevitably “Arirang.” The song plays in the background from start to finish by a 19-piece orchestra that includes the violin, cello and oboe, together with traditional Korean instruments like haegeum and buk, and even pansori.
Director Go Sun-woong says his version of the story focuses on catharsis as opposed to sorrow. Will your soul be moved as Arirang cries out?
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