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By Kwon Mee-yoo

What do Tony Award-winning designer Linda Cho, the captivating Ruthie Ann Miles of "Sweeney Todd" and newcomer Hwang Joo-min of "& Juliet" have in common? They are part of an expanding circle of talents of Korean descent or origin who are transforming Broadway, signaling a shift toward greater inclusivity and diversity.

 

Achievements in technical fields

The technical side of Broadway has seen remarkable Korean talents making their mark.

The Seoul-born Korean American designer Linda Cho won her secondTony Award for Best Costume Design in a Musical for "The Great Gatsby," produced by Korean Shin Chun-soo, Sunday (local time). Her designs, which vividly capture the glitz and glamour of 1920s New York, have been lauded for bringing the essence of the era to life. Cho's first Tony came from her work in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" in 2014.

Brian MacDevitt, left, and Hana S. Kim accept their awards for Best Lighting Design in a Musical for 'The Outsiders' at the 77th Annual Tony Awards in New York, Sunday. Reuters-Yonhap

 

Brian MacDevitt, left, and Hana S. Kim accept their awards for Best Lighting Design in a Musical for "The Outsiders" at the 77th Annual Tony Awards in New York, Sunday. Reuters-Yonhap

Joining her in recognition, Hana S. Kim, alongside Brian MacDevitt, won the Tony for Best Lighting Design in a Musical for their work in "The Outsiders," where she worked as a projection designer to bring the gritty imagery of the iconic American novel to the stage.

Jiyoun Chang was also nominated for Best Lighting Design in a Play for her work in "Stereophonic," which won Best Play.

These achievements are part of a longer history of Korean success on Broadway, dating back to Willa Kim. Kim was a Korean American designer who first broke ground for Asians at the Tony Awards, winning the Tony for Best Costume Design in a Musical in 1981 for "Sophisticated Ladies" and again in 1991 for "The Will Rogers Follies," becoming the first Asian to win two Tonys.

 

Korean American actor Ruthie Ann Miles arrives at the 74th annual Tony Awards in New York in this September 2021 file photo, wearing hanbok, or traditional Korean dress. AP-Yonhap

Korean American actor Ruthie Ann Miles arrives at the 74th annual Tony Awards in New York in this September 2021 file photo, wearing hanbok, or traditional Korean dress. AP-Yonhap

 

Dazzling on stage

The narratives on stage have evolved significantly as well, moving away from confining Asian actors to stereotypical roles in shows such as "Miss Saigon" and "The King and I." With the advent of "color-blind" casting, more doors have opened for actors of diverse backgrounds, including Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Miles, a half-Korean half-American actor, has been particularly notable. She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Lady Thiang in "The King and I" in 2015 and received acclaim for her portrayal of the beggar woman in the recent revival of "Sweeney Todd." At the 2021 Tony Awards, Miles honored her heritage by donning a purple and white hanbok, or traditional Korean dress.

Netflix's "Emily in Paris" star Ashley Park also gained recognition on Broadway with roles such as Tuptim in "The King and I" in 2015 and Gretchen Wieners in "Mean Girls" in 2018, earning a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Jin Ha, known for playing Solomon Baek in Apple TV+'s "Pachinko," made history as the first Asian to play King George in “Hamilton” and originated the role of Song Liling in the play "M. Butterfly" on Broadway in 2017. He recently appeared in Stephen Sondheim's final musical "Here He Are."

Stephanie Jae Park, left, as Eliza Hamitlon and Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton in 'Hamilton' / Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Stephanie Jae Park, left, as Eliza Hamitlon and Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton in "Hamilton" / Courtesy of Joan Marcus

 

Grace Yoo, who plays Worker and understudies Eurydice in Broadway's "Hadestown," shared her making of kimchi fried rice as a post-show snack on the show's social media in honor of AAPI Heritage Month. In the current production of "Hamilton," Stephanie Jae Park portrays Eliza Hamilton, while Marcus Shane, a Korean adoptee, stars in "Aladdin" and Mikayla Renfrow, of Korean and Japanese descent, is understudy for Velma Kelly in "Chicago" after roles in "Wicked" and "Aladdin."

Among this season's new shows, Christine Heesun Hwang appears as a swing in "Suffs" and Sun Kim, a Korean-born dancer and choreographer, adds her talent to "Cabaret" as one of the prologue dancers. Jimin Moon starred in the short-lived "Lempicka," while veteran actor Raymond J. Lee takes on the role of JJ in "The Heart of Rock and Roll."

 

From left, Christine Heesun Hwang, Kristen Scott, Chessa Metz, Housso Semon, Hawley Gould and D'Kaylah Unique Whitley attend the 'Suffs' Broadway opening night performance at the Music Box Theatre in New York, April 18. AP-Yonhap

From left, Christine Heesun Hwang, Kristen Scott, Chessa Metz, Housso Semon, Hawley Gould and D'Kaylah Unique Whitley attend the "Suffs" Broadway opening night performance at the Music Box Theatre in New York, April 18. AP-Yonhap

 

While many performers are Korean Americans born or raised in the U.S., Hwang Joo-min of "& Juliet" achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first native Korean to land a non-Asian specific principal role on Broadway in April 2023. Despite joining Broadway later in his career in his 30s, Hwang, who is understudy for Francois while in the show's ensemble, brought a fresh perspective to his portrayal the French boy who engages with Juliet in the Max Martin jukebox musical that reinterprets Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet."

Hwang spoke about the solidarity among Korean actors on Broadway during his interview with The Korea Times.

"It's not easy to catch each other on stage because of our similar schedules, but when we do see each other in the streets, we cheer each other on. We're all doing so well and it's important that we continue to excel so that producers are encouraged to hire more Korean actors,” Hwang said.

Along with Hwang, there is another cast member of Korean descent in "& Juliet." Justin David Sullivan, playing May, is half-Korean, half-Mexican and non-binary who notably declined Tony Award eligibility against the awards' gendered categories in 2023.

Producer Shin Chun-soo speaks onstage during the curtain call for the opening night of 'The Great Gatsby' at Broadway Theatre in New York, April 25. AFP-Yonhap

Producer Shin Chun-soo speaks onstage during the curtain call for the opening night of "The Great Gatsby" at Broadway Theatre in New York, April 25. AFP-Yonhap

 

Behind-the-scenes contributions

While actors often receive the spotlight, the force behind them includes producers and creative teams, where Koreans are also leaving their stamp.

Producer Shin has been active on Broadway for over a decade, with his latest production "The Great Gatsby" becoming a standout success, joining the prestigious $1 million club for its weekly box office gross for nine consecutive weeks since its April opening.

CJ ENM, a Korean entertainment powerhouse, has also made its mark by co-producing hit shows such as "Kinky Boots," "MJ the Musical" and "Moulin Rouge!" This involvement underscores the growing influence of Korean producers in global theater productions.

Adding to this trend, Korea's Library Company, a newer name on Broadway, has quickly established itself by co-producing "& Juliet" and "Some Like It Hot." As "& Juliet" recoups its Broadway investment and both shows prepare for a U.S. tour, Library Company's rapid ascent within the tightly knit Broadway is notable. The company plans to expand its role to become a lead producer on several upcoming projects, including a reading in New York this April of Korean American composer Julia Riew's "Endless," which is aiming for a premiere in Korea in 2025 before heading to Broadway.

Visual for the upcoming Broadway production of 'Maybe Happy Ending,' slated to open in October / Courtesy of 'Maybe Happy Ending'

Visual for the upcoming Broadway production of "Maybe Happy Ending," slated to open in October / Courtesy of "Maybe Happy Ending"

 

On the creative side, the Korean and American duo of Will Aronson and Hue Park will open their musical "Maybe Happy Ending" on Broadway in October. Highly acclaimed since its 2016 premiere in Korea, the English-language production stars Darren Criss and Helen J. Shen.

Co-writer and lyricist Park mentioned that the casting for the show's two lead roles, which are portrayed as obsolete Helperbots customizable to their master's preferences, faced no racial restrictions. However, both roles coincidentally ended up being cast with AAPI actors. Park added that, however, they are specifically seeking an Asian actor for the role of James, Oliver's former master, to align with the show’s Korean setting in Seoul and Jeju Island.

Aronson and Park are working on another project titled "Il Tenore," inspired by Korea's first tenor Lee In-seon, that premiered in Seoul last year. The duo believes it has the potential to connect with Western audiences and provide more opportunities for AAPI actors, aiming to create a 21st-century equivalent to "The King and I," which historically attracted many Asian actors.

"When 'The King and I' was performed on Broadway in 2015, it was a rare opportunity that drew almost all available Asian actors to audition," Park said. "'Il Tenore' explores a universal theme of a man chasing his dreams, set against the backdrop of 1930s Seoul, which we believe will also resonate with Western audiences. We aspire to bring 'Il Tenore' to Broadway and, in doing so, continue to cast Asian actors in a similar vein to 'The King and I.'"

The short-lived 2022 musical "KPOP" explored the K-pop industry and showcased a handful of Asian talents on Broadway, but faced challenges with casual racism in reviews. Despite its brief run, it was recognized at the Tony Awards, with co-composer Helen Park becoming the first Asian woman nominated for Best Original Score. Park is now involved in the "Crazy Rich Asians" musical, directed by Jon M. Chu, which is expected to spotlight more Asian talent on Broadway.

Korean singer Luna and the cast of 'KPOP,' a Broadway musical, perform during a press preview at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York in this Oct. 11, 2022, file photo. AFP-Yonhap

Korean singer Luna and the cast of "KPOP," a Broadway musical, perform during a press preview at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York in this Oct. 11, 2022, file photo. AFP-Yonhap

 

Challenges and opportunities

After her Tony win in 2015, Miles spoke about the hurdles Asian actors face in finding opportunities.

"We have a lot of amazing, talented people who just don't have a platform," she said. “They are hitting those auditions and doing readings and they are striving and working so hard. But there's no place to practice, which is on the stage. There aren't enough roles. There aren't enough opportunities."

While there has been some progress, the journey toward full representation remains a challenge.

A 2021 study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) revealed that Asian actors held less than 10 percent of roles on New York stages during the 2018-19 season. This highlights the need for continued efforts to enhance diversity, not only among actors but also among creators and producers, to reflect a broader range of stories and experiences.

As the influence of Asian writers and composers increases, so does the synergy between authentic representation and innovative storytelling. Hwang Joo-min of "& Juliet" recognizes the strides made, but points out that the majority of creators and producers are still white, which can limit the themes and atmospheres of shows to white-centric perspectives.

"It's crucial to effectively understand and convey the essence of a show. While race or ethnicity isn't the sole factor, Asian actors are uniquely suited to roles designed for Asians, creating a natural synergy. It's encouraging to witness the rise of Asian talents such as David Henry Hwang and Helen Park on Broadway. I think we are witnessing a transformative process,” Hwang said with optimism.

 

출처: https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/art/2024/06/690_376929.html

 


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