Updated: Aug 7, 2020
[edited for length and repetitive content]
The performing arts industry took a heavy blow from Covid-19 this year. According to KOPIS (Korean Performing Arts Box Office Information System) sales from the first half of the year dropped 49.4% compared to last year. EMK Musical Company had to delay the opening of its 10th anniversary run for <Mozart!>, as the city of Seoul implemented stricter preventative measures - it finally opened on June 16th at Sejong Center. It has now extended the run from Aug 8th to the 23rd, thanks to fan support.
"I was worried after hearing about the postponement. Some productions were cancelled all together. My heart dropped at the possibility that we might not be able to perform; the fact that we're allowed to put on a show feels so much more precious in these circumstances. And I had already been going on stage every time thinking it could be my last. I am reminded how rare and lucky it is that I get to sing on stage thanks to audiences who come see our shows despite the difficulties and sit for 3 hours wearing masks."
A Hit Musical with a Cumulative Audience of 2.4 Million
When <Mozart!> premiered in Korea, it swept up 11 awards and became one of the 9 countries and 2,200 shows staged around the the world with a cumulative audience around 2.4 million. The musical made headlines in Korea when Kim Junsu, former TVXQ member and at the time JYJ member, joined as one of the leads. All 45,000 seats to his shows sold out. Scalpers selling his tickets appeared on the scene. He has been a top star for a long time; he's made hits out of diverse musicals such as 'Elisabeth,' 'Death Note,' 'Dorian Gray' and more; he is one of few actors recognized for vocal prowess and dance abilities, on top of box office power; yet he frantically waves his hand in denial when called a genius.
"Before encountering the musical, I had only known Mozart as a successful musician and a genius; I had no idea he had been through so many ordeals" Kim says, a point that strikes a resemblance to the prejudice surrounding 'the celebrity, Kim Junsu' instead of the human being. Productions boost their promotion by making the rounds on diverse TV and radio shows with key cast members. He was never seen on such promotional scenes in past years. Many, including industry insiders and broadcast personnel, thought 'He doesn't need to promote because he sells tickets without it.' As it turns out, he had been hungry for those appearances the whole time. It is why the decision to appoint Kim as a 'Master' on TV Chosun's 'Mr. Trot' was met with such explosive fan reaction.
Changing the industry's dependence on classical singers
I once asked musical theatre experts to list which of the idols currently active in musicals would survive 10 years later. No one failed to include Kim Junsu. It takes talent - more than just star power - to thrive this long in an industry that holds strong biases against idols. When you ask him, however, it was 'the desperate thought that everything could end tomorrow."
"I was desperate. I know others are, too, but it felt like I had one sword remaining and everything would end if this one sword became rusty. I think I came this far because I was armed with that desperation whenever I went on stage. What has changed since then? The fact that I used to be called 'Junsu-ya' at rehearsals because everyone was a hyung or nuna to me. Now I have more colleagues who call me 'Junsu oppa' or 'Junsu hyung.' That's about it. (laugh)."
The raspy voice and characteristic vocal style that are among his unique strengths was viewed as 'poison' in the beginning. Back then classical singing was the industry standard. "Vocal styles have become much more varied. The difference is that now it's become more like mixed martial arts, where you can see Muay Thai, Kung Fu and boxing all in a UFC match. I think I'd have it easier if I made my debut now" Kim says as he laughs.
"Productions have become more diverse, too. For instance, there are musicals that require an R&B style or rapping. Or belting like a rock star [..] There is more acceptance of different styles and less prejudice. In a way, I feel proud about that."
Diversifying the casting pool
I have seen most of Kim's musicals since 2010 and what stands out to me, apart from his singing and dancing, is the fact that he rarely mistakes his lines. Given that a considerable number of even veteran actors mistake their lines, there is no other explanation to how he can go through nearly 3 hours without ever making a mistake, except enormous amounts of practice. "Sometimes I had to ad lib because I was struggling to get on a coat." He adds, good-humoredly "I was never the type that makes many mistakes."
"Nowadays, idols are welcomed and respected in musical theatre but when I was starting out, you just began with the bashings. I could understand why, given the particular environment and vibe of the time so I didn't harbor grievances about that. But I had to trick myself into thinking that I was not allowed to make mistakes other actors are able to brush off with a laugh. Even if it was okay for someone else's voice to crack, I kept telling myself 'Junsu-ya, if your voice cracks, you're finished.' I had that compulsive mindset every time I performed."
When asked to pick one of his proudest moments, he chose playing Death in 'Elisabeth.' Around the time Kim was cast in the role, the international trend had been for middle-aged men with gravitas to play the character. That trend changed with Kim Junsu.
"When I got cast for 'Elisabeth,' I think I received more bashings than when I made my debut. Because I was so different from the image and vocal styles of the previous Deaths. I had zero confidence I would do a good job within that template, but with the autonomy to create, I found the challenge compelling. Death is not a person but a personification, so I wanted to create a character that could be male or female, or even a 3rd gender. It was the first musical into which I poured everything I learned from doing musicals. At first, regardless of how well the shows were selling, it was a veritable bash fest. I'm told that Death is now played by younger actors, not just in Korea but overseas as well, and that makes me proud. It made me happy because I felt I received recognition from musical fans for the first time. The musical gave me a best actor award and became a major stepping stone as an actor."
Why He Pursues Original Productions
"The musical theatre industry has grown larger compared to 10 years ago. I think with further growth in size, growth in tolerance will follow. I can't wait for that world to come. I want to contribute to expanding the pie."
"If I had played an R&B singer, that might have felt like a better fit. But then I would have stagnated and not been able to grow." Growth is the reason he chose traditional musical theatre over jukebox musicals, a comparatively easier choice for idols to take on, and why he has consistently taken part of original productions instead of sticking to guaranteed hits in the form of licensed musicals.
"I once said in an interview a long time ago that, if there was a way in which I could help, I wanted to contribute to musicals. Given the industry's conditions, original productions have less of a competitive edge. People ask 'Why bother seeing an original production?' But I made up my mind to do one every one or two years. Sometimes, theatre seonbaes will be surprised or give me a pat on the shoulders. They ask 'why be so adventurous when there are safer options?' Mmm.. it's a promise I made with myself."
Kim was humble throughout the interview. It was not something I expected from a global star and if it was an act, the performance would be worthy of another best actor award. I was also surprising to discover how someone who always sells out most shows and whose headlines always have the word "first" in it, could have worked and struggled so intensely. Which is why I told him maybe it was time to relax a bit and maybe even flex.
"I always want to show the audience something better and never want them to think the performance was a waste of money. I hope for a virtuous cycle through which people who come to see me become a fan of the musical and vice versa. Each show feels like a miracle to me; at the same time, I often think it could be my last. I'm also interested in producing or directing. It's not quite a script, but I have a plot and title I had written before enlisting. I don't know when but I hope there will come a day when I can give an interview, not as an actor, but as a producer."
Journliast Koo, curiously resembling Apeach
"He was so humble for a person in his position that I wanted to tell him it was okay to flex a little and not be so hard on himself. But it's probably why he rarely makes a mistake on stage and I've seen most of his musicals (some as press, some on my own time)
"I am very curious about the musical synopsis he wrote before enlisting in the military. Will I have the opportunity to interview him when he produces it? What is certain is that I'll still have to fight tooth and nail for tickets even then."
"I didn't start out as a musical theatre journalist - I was given the assignments because I was infamous for being a theatre geek. I saw many idol musicals for comparison and had my shares of prejudices (some morphed into fan meets when the idol came on). What I remember from my first Junsu musical is the audience. I had such a pleasant experience in a theatre so quiet I wondered if the person next to me was even breathing."
Articles written on Junsu over the years
"Meeting Singer-Actor Kim Junsu, Leader of K-Musicals for the Past Decade
[Article on 'Elisabeth']
"I Never Thought I'd Start Stanning Death"
"What Makes Idols Great Musical Actors"
"Idols in Musicals are the Trend"
['Dorian Gray' article]
"What is Moving the Performing Arts"
"A Stand-out Actor, Stark Stage, Clever Adaptation"
"Double Casting & Broadway's Version"