Choosing her roles, on stage and in life

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Choosing her roles, on stage and in life

Yun Suk-hwa, one of Korea’s most famous actresses, has been on the stage for almost 30 years, since her 1975 debut in the play “A Taste of Honey.”
This year, at the age of 48, she is playing 21-year-old Annette in the musical “Saturday Night Fever.” This has shocked many people ― journalists in particular, it seems. But the reaction of others has been, “Well, it is Yun Suk-hwa, the woman who doesn’t care.”
Ms. Yun, indeed, seems to care little about what people think of her, or about her age. The only concerns she seems to have at the moment are her child Su-min, whom she adopted last year, and her current project, the stage musical “Saturday Night Fever,” which opens Saturday at Seoul Arts Center.
In a society like Korea, it’s very rare to find a woman who’s maintained a career as long, and as aggressively, as Ms. Yun has. Over the years, she has played major roles in 16 plays and 10 major musical productions, including “Guys in Dolls,” “The Last Empress” and two productions of “Agnes of God,” in 1983 and 1999.
For “Saturday Night Fever,” Ms. Yun is not only playing a lead role, but is one of the musical’s producers. Nor are these her only titles.
She is also the publisher of a well-known culture magazine, Gaeksuk, and the owner of Jungmiso, a theater in Daehangno. Such multi-tasking may suggest why a newspaper recently named her one of the 19 most influential people in Korean arts and culture.
“Actually, I didn’t know that I won the title, and I’m not interested in things like that,” Ms. Yun said.
“If there were any reason why I was picked, though, it would be that I’ve been in one field for a long time,” she said. “It’s hard to do that in Korea. The society doesn’t promote that, which results in a lack of true professionals.”
As a well-known professional woman with multiple careers, she has a considerable following among women. “I think I have more female fans than male. In fact, I’m glad to think that I inspire and encourage Korean women to be more active,” she said.

At the moment, Ms. Yun is focused on “Saturday Night Fever,” a stage adaptation of the iconic 1977 American movie about a disco-dancing Brooklyn boy that made superstars out of John Travolta and the Bee Gees. The stage version had a stint on Broadway and toured Europe; this will be its Korean debut.
This production has a Korean cast; as with many local productions of Western musicals, the dialogue has been translated into Korean, as have the lyrics of famous Bee Gees songs from the movie. In her role as producer, Ms. Yun was involved in the translation process.
“As long as the translation is good, there are a lot more advantages than disadvantages [to translating],” she said. “The reverse also applies. So for this show, whenever there was a translated line that didn’t sound natural, I kept changing it until it sounded right.
“Meanwhile, I never let the actors sing in the original English, because they had to be perfectly used to singing in Korean, with a natural tone,” she said. “In Europe or Latin America, it’s possible for actors to sing in English while acting in their own languages. Korea, however, has a culture that is much too different from English-speaking cultures. This makes translation very hard, but necessary.”
Recent pop music trends made the task somewhat easier, however. “These days, the trend in Korean pop songs is to have many English lines and words, so I decided to leave the choruses of ‘Night Fever,’ ‘Staying Alive’ and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ in English. I’m sure everyone has heard those lines before.”
Ms. Yun plays 21-year-old Annette, who is in love with Tony (played by John Travolta in the film), a Brooklyn kid who escapes his family troubles on chic Manhattan dance floors. For this production, Tony is played by Park Gun-hyung, an actor more than 20 years younger than Ms. Yun. “I see no problem,” she said of the age difference. “We get along so well on and off stage.... He has been playing his role surprisingly well, even to the point where he treats me like 21-year-old Annette too naturally.” She joked that he should show more respect.
The show has some significant differences from the film. “In our musical, almost all the actors dance, whereas the original film mostly shows the dancing of John Travolta,” Ms. Yun said. The film only used five Bee Gees songs; the show has 18.
Another change in the Korean production is that, because of cultural differences, sex and drugs aren’t part of the story. Instead, Ms. Yun said, the show focuses on “youth” as a universal theme. “After all, the musical is about hope in hard times,” Ms. Yun said. “The story implies that hope is the energy that drives the characters from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and the hope comes from love.” She says that’s why the musical ends with the song “How Deep Is Your Love.”

Characteristically outspoken, Ms. Yun chides Korea for not supporting its own theater community. “I have seen great actors with immense potential. Those actors would grow a lot more if there was a solid system to provide them with enough support, such as financing and quality scripts,” she said. “Korea has many talented actors, but there aren’t enough good playwrights.”
She said it’s unfortunate that Koreans overlook the potential of domestic theater, becoming fascinated instead by touring productions from abroad, and often overrating the performances just because they’re from the United States or Europe.
“It seems too easy for even third-rate plays or musicals to make a lot of money in Korea, not because of the quality of the productions but because of their nationalities,” Ms. Yun said. “If the nation sponsored struggling domestic performance companies, instead of wasting money on supporting foreign performances, Korean theater would be a lot more advanced.”

by Choi Sun-young

“Saturday Night Fever” will be at Seoul Arts Center from July 17 to August 3. Go to for information.
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