Actor’s record- breaking salary stokes conflict

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Actor’s record- breaking salary stokes conflict


Cho Seung-woo will return to the stage after two years of military service in a production of “Jekyll and Hyde,” beginning Nov. 30. Despite his absence from the musical-theater scene, he has become the country’s highest-paid musical-theater actor, which has created controversy in the industry. [YONHAP]

Unlike most male celebrities who struggle to regain their popularity after completing their two years of mandatory military service, 30-year-old actor and musical theater star Cho Seung-woo is set to make a comeback later this month in the Korean version of the musical “Jekyll and Hyde,” just a month after he completed his service.

But it is his sky-high salary that is making headlines. Cho’s pay will be the highest of any musical theater actor in Korean history - a fact that has stirred controversy among producers who fear that demands for similarly high fees could follow, which could eventually put them out of business.

On the other side are those who say that the fee is justified, based on the hope that Cho will help spark a renaissance in a once vibrant but now stagnant musical theater industry.

The issue has created such a stir that Shin Chun-su, head of OD Musical Company, the musical’s producer, called a press conference on the issue earlier this week, in which he defended his company’s decision to hire Cho for such a high fee.

“I don’t think Cho’s salary is too high,” Shin said. “I think he deserves it.”

Prior to his departure for the military, Cho dominated the musical theater scene, leading sold out productions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Rent” and “Man of La Mancha.”

He was also a prominent screen actor who made his film debut in Im Kwon-taek’s “Chunhyang” (2000), which was the first Korean film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival.


Cho Seung-woo in a scene from “Jekyll and Hyde,” which premieres later this month.[JoongAng Ilbo]

These successes stoked anticipation of Cho’s return to the stage, and he was cast in what will be the sixth Korean production of Jekyll and Hyde before he was discharged from service.

The musical opens Nov. 30 and runs through the end of March. Tickets for the 14 performances in December in which Cho, who is alternating with another actor in the role, will appear sold out in 15 minutes.

Cho will receive 18 million won ($16,363) per performance, according to OD Musical Company.

Over the musical’s scheduled 198-day run, Cho is scheduled to appear in 80 performances, giving him a potential total salary of 1.4 billion won. Before Cho, the highest performance fee for an A-list musical actor was 3 million won per performance.

Cho’s salary is unheard of even for actors in the film industry, where top stars such as Song Gang-ho and Sul Kyung-gu receive less than 500 million won for a single film.

“For a long-running show [like Jekyll and Hyde], at least 1 billion won is spent on marketing. But you don’t need an extra budget for marketing with a star like Cho because he sells out all the seats,” said an official at CJ Entertainment who wished to remain anonymous. “He is worth the money.”

But others worry about the effect on the industry.

“This is Korea, where nine out of 10 musicals go bankrupt,” said a producer who organizes small-scale productions in Daehangno, the city’s theater district. “I’m really concerned about whether his performance fee will escalate others’ fees as well.”

There are other concerns that Cho’s salary will widen the already significant income gap among performers. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism shows that about 37 percent of artists and entertainers are unable to make any money in the business.

For Cho, who starred in Jekyll and Hyde in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the musical is simply a chance to challenge himself in a role that has already earned him critical acclaim.

“This is the [role] that pushed me into the world and encouraged me to have the guts to challenge myself,” Cho told reporters at a press conference late last month. “I look forward to seeing a new side of myself.”

*Jekyll and Hyde premieres Nov. 30 and runs through March 31 at the Charlotte Theater in Jamsil-dong, southern Seoul. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 3 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and at 2 and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. There are matinees in December and January. Tickets range from 50,000 won to 130,000 won. Call 1588-5212 or 726-4812, or visit

By Choi Min-woo []
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