Chicago, Lost in Translation, and All That Jazz

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I love theatre, but I’ve only ever seen shows performed in English. Being a lover of theatre and travel I’ve always kind of been curious about what seeing a show in another country, and in a foreign language would be like. Today Neysha tells us about her experience seeing the musical Chicago in Daegu, South Korea. Photos within this post are courtesy of Neysha.

Stumbling my way through Daegu as a newly transplanted expat in South Korea back in August 2014, I remember being captivated by all the advertisements in the Subway stations. They’re common in any city, but the fact that they’re all written in a language I couldn’t even begin to understand made them all the more interesting. It started out as a little game; I’d look at the pictures and kind of run my eyes over the Hangul characters, trying to decide what the advertisement was promoting. As I started learning to read Korean, I’d try to make sense of the words that slowly became more familiar, and I’d piece the ad together with a bit more knowledge. One day, I came down to my usual spot to wait for the train when I noticed a big sign reading CATS: Now and Forever. A musical? In Korea? And in… KOREAN!? I hadn’t even thought of the possibility! (The things you realize you’re ignorant about when you give yourself the opportunity to be immersed in a new culture).

Being a lover of theatre and the performing arts, I started researching all the playhouses in my area and in all surrounding cities. I’d missed the window to see Cats, but my ears were perked for any sign of the next show I recognized. As soon as I saw the flyer for Chicago some weeks later, I snagged it and booked a seat. My co-worker and theatre companion worried I’d be disappointed or lost because it would be completely in Korean, and I shrugged her off, thinking, “How could I be lost? I’ve seen Chicago dozens of times…”

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Daegu Opera House in Daegu, South Korea.

Entering the Daegu Opera House.

Lo and behold, translations do not always seem as direct as you’d think.

A Korean musical, like most events in this country, is packed with a surplus, but I’ve grown used to being uncomfortable. Fighting our way to the designated fan-photo areas with cardboard cutouts of the cast, while trying to capture my surroundings, is always a little difficult when I’m being shoved in all directions. Once we made it to our seats, I was shocked to find that the theatre was actually nearly empty. Our entire section (4th, all the way at the top, and the most affordable seats, of course) didn’t even have more than four rows full of people. I can’t even imagine attending on opening night or on the weekend. Overall, the auditorium was massive, and if I have the chance to go back during my stay here, I’ll definitely choose a balcony seat on stage left or stage right where you can easily adjust your view.

Memorabilia of the cast, including Jeong-won Choi (Velma) and Ivy (Roxie).

There was little notice before the lights shut off and the curtains ascended to reveal a stage set with orchestra stairs smack dab in the middle. It was an interesting triangle effect, and the prisoners had seats lining the sides, blocked by shadows until their appearance. I was curious to know how they would translate each number to fit the show eloquently. As it turns out, the only words I could make out through the entire musical that was left in English were, “And All That Jazz” from the opening number. Everything else was translated into Korean, apart from names, as Mama continued to call out ‘Loxy!’ at the top of her lungs. To be honest, I think it made for an entirely different spectacle.

More memorabilia of the cast, including Jong-hyuk Lee (Billy Flynn).

Something about Cellblock Tango lacked the signature umph and sex appeal that is often found in Western versions of Chicago. I was curious to see how little things like humour (as observed by audience uproar) were injected into the script so it would appeal to an overall Korean audience. I found the modesty of the costumes to be quite interesting as the exposure of cleavage is a huge ‘no no’ in this culture. However, the femininity of the masculine characters seemed off to me. Much of the show consisted of Billy Flynn chatting it up, until the second act; then things started picking up.

Theatrical Billboard including all main cast members, from left to right: Velma, Fred, Roxie, Mama, Billy Flynn, and Mary Sunshine.

The actresses who played Velma and Roxy had exceptional voices, and are very well known throughout Korea for their talent. I was shocked to find out that Velma is actually in her forties, as she still looks phenomenal from top to bottom. The show ended with a performance by the two actresses that simply blew me away. I can’t quite describe it in words and do it justice. The stage was full of glitter, these curtains that sparkled so bright I’m convinced you need sunglasses to protect your eyes, and their shoes… the contrast of silver lustre glowing from their feet and the twinkling gold of the backdrop made the entire closing number something truly special.

Roxie & Velma’s closing number.

I definitely recommend anyone visiting a foreign country to see a show, even if you don’t understand the language. Although knowing the performance in English made it a bit easier, I don’t think it matters too much what play or musical you choose, as long as you have an idea of what the plot consists of. It was an interesting experience to see how the audience reacted to different scenes and even how I understood them without the use of my native tongue. Go – you won’t regret it!

About the Author

Neysha is a fan of eccentric gems, hidden markets and craft beer, is the blogger behind Travelsuras. Her blog is filled with inspiration and proof that adventures can be found anywhere. She currently teaches youngsters in Daegu, South Korea all about Spanish culture how to dance Flamenco (poorly).

Would you see a show in a foreign language?

4 comments on “Chicago, Lost in Translation, and All That Jazz

  1. Was just reading through this post and what a fun time it was! Thanks again for featuring me and my experience at a foreign show.

  2. As a musician I did find this funny! I guess it’s no different to seeing an opera sung in Italian or German, though normally there would be subtitles. If you know the story and they put on a quality performance and soectacle, it doesn’t matter. For what it’s worth, I have a few colleagues who play in the bands for touring British productions and they often tour Asia. Not Korea admittedly but you never know… one day?!

    • That’s very true. Music is a universal language, so that probably helps with the translation, even for a musical or opera. Maybe your friends will get to play in South Korea. Thanks for your comment.

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