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Korean stage actors make way to Broadway, West End

As entertainment industry urged to promote diversity, more roles open up for Asians

Stage actor Jeong Young-ju (from left), the host of Musical Global Network Conference, talks with actors Kim So-hyang, Park Young-ju, Kim Soo-ha and Choi Eun-sil at Blue Square in Hannam-dong, central Seoul on Monday. (Korea Musical Theatre Association)
Stage actor Jeong Young-ju (from left), the host of Musical Global Network Conference, talks with actors Kim So-hyang, Park Young-ju, Kim Soo-ha and Choi Eun-sil at Blue Square in Hannam-dong, central Seoul on Monday. (Korea Musical Theatre Association)

Like the rest of the global entertainment industry, the musical theater scene has been paying attention to the issue of racial diversity. Backed by the movement, more Korean stage actors are making their way to overseas productions, including on Broadway and West End.

While the 2020 Korea Musical Awards took place Monday, stage actors who starred in overseas musical productions -- Kim So-hyang, Kim Soo-ha, Park Young-ju and Choi Eun-sil -- shared their experiences at the Musical Global Network Conference at Blue Square in Hannam-dong, central Seoul. The event was organized by the Korea Musical Theatre Association.

 
(Korea Musical Theatre Association)
(Korea Musical Theatre Association)

Kim So-hyang, also known as Sophie Kim, is a member of the Actors Equity Association, a US theater labor union. After making her musical debut in 2001 in Korea, she moved to New York in 2010 and studied musical theater there.

After hundreds of failed auditions, Kim became the first Asian to be cast in “Sister Act,” playing Sister Mary Robert in the 2017-18 Asian tour production.

“I did ‘Chicago,’ ‘Miss Saigon’ before in the US, but ‘Sister Act’ had so many lines. Singing was much easier,” Kim said. “I know I was not perfect in the audition, but the production team told me they picked me because this was an Asian tour and they saw my potential.”

Kim Soo-ha had her professional debut on West End in 2015. She started as the understudy for Kim, a Vietnamese orphan in “Miss Saigon,” and eventually worked her way into the main cast of the show in the musical’s tour productions from 2017 to 2019.

“Miss Saigon” is one of few musicals in mainstream musical theater that regularly employs Asian actors. Yet even in its early days, it cast white actors in the Asian roles.

Though Kim first auditioned for a Japanese production of the show, the British producer at the audition suggested Kim go for the West End version.

“The biggest barrier was definitely English. Because I began as an understudy, I listened to the recorded tape of Kim all day long,” she said. “If I were to do it again, I don’t think I would be able to play the part. I always cried myself to sleep at the time.”

“‘Miss Saigon’ is a show with 35 years of history. In the show, I was not allowed to explore with my role. I sometimes wondered, why do these people think that Asians will behave in certain ways? But over time, I gradually understood,” she said.

Another actor who starred in “Miss Saigon” with Kim Soo-ha, actor Park Young-ju, was also present at the conference. Park starred in the West End and international tour productions of the show as the understudy for Thuy from 2017 to 2019.

“In London racial diversity is a heated topic. More productions are trying to reflect different cultures. For example, an Asian played Evita in ‘Evita,’ a Japanese actor played Madame Giry in ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ If visa issues can be cleared, more Asian actors will have a chance to stand on the West End stage,” he said.

Unlike the other three actors at the conference, Choi Eun-sil got her overseas experience in Japan. She was a member of famous theater troupe Shiki Theatre Company, where she played the iconic lead role of Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera” in 2005-2007 and Belle of “The Beauty and the Beast” in 2012 and 2014.

Like other actors, learning the language was the most difficult part for Choi. But she said once she understood the language, it was much easier to sing in Japanese than in Korean because of the pronunciation structure. 

Stage actor Jo Hyung-gyun (left) and Kim Sun-young (Korea Musical Theatre Association)
Stage actor Jo Hyung-gyun (left) and Kim Sun-young (Korea Musical Theatre Association)

In the fourth edition of the Korea Musical Awards, musical actor Jo Hyung-gyun and actress Kim Sun-young won the top prizes for acting, respectively in the musicals “Cyrano” and “Hope.” Original musical “Hope” took the grand prize, along with seven other prizes.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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