The Last Empress is an original Korean musical in the style of a traditional Broadway production, and is based on the life story of Queen Min, the last Empress of the Joseon Dynasty, who was murdered by Japanese assassins in 1895. Undoubtedly patriotic in its theme, it capitalises on the popularity of the musical in Korea. The book is by Yi Mun-yol, based on his own novel, Fox Hunting.
As I sat through its performance in Hammersmith, I couldn’t get Les Miserables out of my mind – a production I have sat through twice and regretted twice. Musically, the Korean show aims to emulate Les Mis, but fails for the same reason (for me) that Les Mis fails. The music, by Kim Hee Gap, is big, bombastic and not unpleasant, but in the end totally unmemorable.
The other downside is that there is a lot of story (based on an historical novel by Yi Mun-yol) to cram into the two-and-a-half hour time frame. Events flashed by too quickly to take in, and you felt you were being rushed along in order to get your quota of facts in, before it was time for the curtain to fall.
It was very impressive visually (great costumes) and the overall production by Yun Ho-jin was on an heroic scale, but I’m sorry I can’t be more enthusiastic.
The Last Empress showed at Hammersmith Apollo, 1-16 February 2002
- The show’s official home page.
- Two reviews from the Independent: here and here;
- Slightly more enthusiastic reviews of the New York staging by the New York Times, Curtainup, and the International Herald Tribune.
- Plus a nine minute BBC Women’s Hour interview with the star Yi Tae Won and Keith Howard from SOAS is available here.