For success these days with a new American musical, try adding a little Seoul.
Neil Bartram and Brian Hill are doing exactly that, staying in a Shirlington flat as they whip into shape their new musical, “Spin,” for the three-week trial run that began Tuesday at Signature Theatre. Based on a hit 2008 South Korean movie with a title that translates as “Speedy Scandal,” the musical tells the story of a washed-up boy-band star who discovers at the tender age of 35 that he’s both a father and a grandfather.
But the creative convergence of Northeast and Far East doesn’t end there, because Bartram and Hill — authors of the extremely short-lived 2009 Broadway musical “The Story of My Life” — have written a show in English that’s destined for a place where relatively few people speak it.
With the financial backing of a peripatetic young Korean producer, Chun-soo Shin, “Spin’s” next destination is not a few hours up I-95, but across 13 time zones. It is being considered for an opening under Shin’s auspices in Seoul, the hub of the country’s burgeoning Broadway-style musical-theater industry. There, it is to be translated into Korean in hopes that with its connection to a wildly popular movie, it will prove boffo on the peninsula.
That Bartram and Hill, Toronto-born show-writing and life partners, know not a syllable of Korean is just one of the weird twists in the path along which “Spin” is cycling. The show’s director, Signature head Eric Schaeffer, whose skills in Korean are on a par with the writers’, is supposed to stage it again in Seoul, where the government is a major subsidizer of projects like this one. And Shin, who lately has been putting his money into Broadway shows, including the revival of “Jekyll and Hyde” with Constantine Maroulis and the recently shuttered musical “Chaplin,” speaks so little English that a reporter’s questions had to be submitted to an English-speaking assistant.
Determining how well “Spin” communicates with audiences is the first order of business. At Signature, the almost-fully-staged tryout — all seats are $30 — features a cast of Washington actors, headed by James Gardiner as the young crooning granddad. It is the initial offering of Siglab, a summer musical-development program, and another manifestation of Schaeffer’s continuing efforts to pump new material into the nation’s musical bloodstream.
“Spin’s” developmental route may be the most whimsical in which Schaeffer has ever involved his company. It might make a good subject for a musical itself. At the very least, the experience underscores the broadening opportunities for practitioners of an art form with an expanding global appeal. As Schaeffer succinctly put it: “We’re doing an American musical that is going to end up starting in Korea.”
Shin, who directed a successful version of Bartram and Hill’s “The Story of My Life” in Seoul and approached the team with the idea of adapting “Speedy Scandal,” believed the feeling with which they infuse their songs made this venture a good bet. “We thought that this can be a universal story that can easily reach people’s heart,” Shin said in e-mail responses translated by the assistant. “Also, with such a great creative team, especially with Eric, Neil and Brian, we strongly believed that it can become something, and that faith has brought us up to this moment.”
The coming-together of the Canadian musical writers (who live in upstate New York), a Washington director and a Korean producer starts with “The Story of My Life” and its divergent fates in New York and Seoul. On Broadway, the show — about the lifelong friendship of two men played by Malcolm Gets and Will Chase — was dismissed by Ben Brantley in the New York Times as far too treacly. The musical closed a stunning three days after it opened.
“It was like a death in the family,” said book writer Hill.
Straightforward and sentimental seem to be less of an obstacle in Seoul, where Shin’s production is reported to have done well and to have run for several months. “The thing that Mr. Shin said to us was that they really like heartfelt stories,” composer Bartram added, as he and Hill sat on a recent morning in a Logan Circle coffee emporium. “He said that Korean audiences like to be moved, and that’s why they were attracted to ‘The Story of My Life.’ ”
Shin confirmed this intense Korean affinity with tales of the heart. “Even if the production had high reputation in Broadway, it doesn’t mean that it’ll lead to success in Korea if it’s hard for the audience to empathize themselves into the show,” the producer explained. “For instance, comedy musicals weren’t so successful in Korea during the past days.”
After accepting Shin’s offer and working on musicalizing “Speedy Scandal,” the writers wanted to see an American version on its feet. Through a colleague, they sent Schaeffer a draft script and the music. “It was just this charming musical,” Schaeffer said, “and the songs I heard were really good.” During the run of Schaeffer’s revival of “Follies” at the Kennedy Center, Shin traveled to the District to meet Schaeffer and a deal was sealed.
Part of the challenge, though, was finding in a movie virtually unknown in this country elements that might be touchstones for two different theater cultures. Among the questions that Shin wants answered in Shirlington is whether the musical could also work on Broadway; his investments last season in the ill-fated “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Chaplin” indicate that Shin has some ways to go in the hit-picking department.
“There were things in the plot that were distinctly Korean that we’ve taken out,” Hill said. One example: the ex-boy band member, a character Hill thinks of “as if Justin Timberlake never made it,” worked on a radio show in “Speedy Scandal.” In “Spin” he’s the host of an “American Idol”-type TV series. How differently audiences in the two nations define a “scandal” had to be taken into account, too, for a child born out of wedlock still carries a more negative connotation in Korea. Schaeffer, Bartram and Hill say they even had to convince Shin “Speedy Scandal” wouldn’t work as the title of the American version because the phrase does sound, in fact, as if it were a direct translation from another language.
But they believe they’ve created a story with the kind of pop appeal that is now internationally recognized: Music videos by the purported boy band are projected during the production. And they think they’ve found an emotional core that transcends culture. “His choice,” Hill said of the hero, “is fame or family.”
Schaeffer directed a workshop last fall of “Spin,” whose new title refers both to a turntable and to the revolution that occurs in the life of the main character, Gardiner’s Evan. When that was done, he and the musical’s writers decided that another step had to be taken before they could imagine the work being done in another language. So they asked Shin to help finance the Siglab run.
Performed on the slightly modified set of Signature’s last production, “Company,” its program essentially a photocopied cast list, this spin of “Spin” is meant to look as if it’s not quite there yet. Inviting Signature audiences — many of whom are well versed in early-stage musicals — gives them the privilege, if you will, of weighing in on a show in a fairly embryonic state.
“I want to know: is it funny, and are they moved in the end?” Bartram said.
Shin is flying in to discover the verdict, too. He has installed a general manager and production assistant in Shirlington to learn the show along with the American staff and crew.
“The lyrical book and music written by them will truly bring warmth and life to the story,” the producer said. “Which I think is a beautiful match for ‘Spin.’ ”
Book by Brian Hill, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram. Through July 27 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-SEAT.