Korean-American resurrects role of Jesus in ‘Superstar’

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Korean-American resurrects role of Jesus in ‘Superstar’

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By Park Sang-moon

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a rock musical by the legendary playwriting duo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice that most stage actors would give anything to star in, but also a masterpiece that isn’t for everyone.

That’s because the actors playing the roles must have extensive vocal ranges, as well as outstanding acting skills, to express the intricate inner side of the characters who depict the final week of Jesus’ life, according to the organizer of the musical, Seol & Company.

The most crucial role is that of Jesus, the son of God, who agonizes over his life as a human being. He gets infuriated when he’s betrayed by his beloved disciple and suffers emotionally from people’s anticipations and demands.

Seeking to entrust the role of Jesus to someone with confidence, the organizer chose veteran Broadway musical actor Michael Lee, 39, who may be the only actor who has performed four of the roles in the musical. He first played Pontius Pilate in high school, then played Simon Zealotes, Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ on Broadway.

Growing up as a Korean-American in New York, Lee says his family has always been close to music. His parents made him and his older brother and sister learn to play a musical instrument at a young age. Although it sounds like Lee had always dreamed of being a musical actor since he was young, he took a different road by getting into Stanford University as a pre-med student. However, fate intervened and Lee decided to let go of the “stable life of a doctor,” which his parents preferred him to take, and went for the “unstable life of an actor.”

The Korean production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” kicks off in the Charlotte Theater in Jamsil, southern Seoul from Friday. Recently, the Korea JoongAng Daily had an interview with Lee. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” depicts the final week of Jesus Christ’s life and is the most-protested work in the history of musical theater. Provided by the organizer

Q. You’ve done more than 400 stagings of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and you probably understand the story and the characters inside-out. For the upcoming production, what will be your challenge?

A. Our director Lee Ji-na is a very charismatic woman. She’s very specific about the story that she wants to tell and the pictures that she wants to put on stage. My challenge for this is to let go of all of my preconceptions of the show. Because I’ve done this show so many times, I feel like it’s inside of me. It’s a piece that I’ve lived and I’ve breathed and I’ve understood and I have my own opinions on it. So working with a new director, that’s always a challenge because then you have to accept the story that they want to tell.

Many musical actors pick “Jesus Christ Superstar” as the musical they’d most like to perform. Why?

The music is just so great. Webber is a very famous composer. He did “Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “Sunset Boulevard.” I am just a big fan of his. “Phantom of the Opera” is the musical that made me really interested in musicals. But after listening to all his scores, I can honestly say that I feel “Jesus Christ Superstar” is his best. And I think it’s so interesting for actors because it’s a story that is very well known ? the story of Jesus ? whether you are a Christian or not.

And I think Webber and Rice did a really amazing job of combining music with that story. If you know the story and the mythology of Christianity, it’s incredibly interesting. A man, who is the son of God, is sent to earth to save the world and in order to save the world, he has to die. In and of itself it’s an incredible story. As actors, we love dramatic storytelling. I think “Jesus Christ Superstar” does a great job of combining that storytelling with great music.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is the most-protested work in the history of musical theater, arousing controversy among conservative Christians. What’s your viewpoint on this issue?

In 1971, when it was first staged on Broadway, there was a big controversy. What people normally associate with rock ’n’ roll is sex and drugs. So putting something that’s associated with the crazy part of life with the most sacred part of life seemed sacrilegious for some people. But in my opinion, music is music and storytelling is storytelling. I feel like, just because you are using the music as a medium to tell the story, it doesn’t change the story. When I think about rock ’n’ roll, I think about energy and passion. When you think about rock music, you think about the power of it.

This story, the last few days of Jesus’ life is filled with so much tension and emotion. I don’t think there’s any music that’s better to portray than rock music. You have a man crying out to God, who is his father, saying, “I don’t want to accept my destiny.” Putting that with rock music works really well together.

Now back to your life story. You graduated from Stanford University as a pre-med student. But now you are a musical actor. What happened there? Was it an easy decision for you?

I graduated from my undergraduate studies at Stanford and I left to do “Miss Saigon.” It was easy in the sense that I knew what I wanted to do. It wasn’t easy in a sense that it was an unknown world. It was an industry and a profession that I and my immediate family network weren’t familiar with. There are some families who understand the entertainment industry who have a family member who is in it. But I come from a family that is pretty traditional in a sense, that you study hard, you go to a university, you go to a graduate university, you get your degree and you get your secure and good life.

But my path is nothing like that. It is in a sense that I followed the first part of it. I did study hard and I did well in school. I went to Stanford and I graduated from Stanford but the call of the artist is pretty distinct and the call of the actor is even more specific. They call it a bug. Once that bug bites you, you are sick for the rest of your life.

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At left is the U.K. tour of the rock musical. The Korean production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” featuring Michael Lee as Jesus (double cast with musical actor Park Eun-tae) runs from Friday to June 6 at the Charlotte Theater in Jamsil, southern Seoul. It starts at 8 p.m. on weekdays; 3 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays; and at 2 and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays and public holidays. There are no performances on Mondays. Tickets range from 50,000 won to 130,000 won (44.51 dollars to 115.74 dollars). For more information, visit www.musicalsuperstar.co.kr. Provided by the organizer

Your father is a doctor and your brother is a doctor and they probably expected you to follow in their footsteps. Did your parents oppose your decision?

My father was opposed to the idea of me getting into performing as a living and my mom supported him. They knew that I studied well and they knew that I did well in school. So, like many parents, they didn’t want to see me suffer. They didn’t want to see me have a hard life. They wanted me to be in a position where I could enjoy it as a hobby. They wanted me to use my brain, and go to medical school or go to law school, and get a good solid life and the music will always be there.

But my life took me in a different direction. I’ve been very lucky in my life. Even before I graduated, I was cast in “Miss Saigon.” I finished school, but I finished it while I was working. So my parents, my father especially, saw ?the gifts I was given and I’ve developed, that I was able to from the very start, go to the highest level of performing. I went to Broadway and I played a large part in one of the biggest musicals of my generation. He saw that I was passionate about it. Not only was I passionate about it, but I was talented as well. I think that’s what he needed to see and most importantly, he saw that it made me happy.

You said you played violin and the piano at a very young age. You loved listening to music and did musical productions in high school. Music seems to be where your passion was. Why were you a pre-med student in the first place?

It seemed like the easiest decision for me. It doesn’t seem like an easy decision to want to become a doctor, but my father was a doctor and my brother was in medical school at that time. I knew that I studied well or at the very least got good grades.

So it seemed like that was the path that I was meant to take. It was a very set order. You study well in high school and you get into a good college. You study well in your college and you study well in your undergraduate years in pre-med, then you go to a good medical school. And after you get out of medical school, you get a job in a good city as a doctor and you get a family and a house and have kids.

I never thought much about what my heart or what I personally really wanted to pursue or wanted to do. When I got to college, and I got to live on my own and asked myself those questions, I didn’t know that I wanted to become an artist or an actor, but deep down, I knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor. The idea of a doctor still appeals to me. The idea of helping people, the idea of curing people is fascinating to me, but what I felt was my calling was something very different.

I hear you also write screenplays, is that right?

I’ve written couple of scenarios, each with their own levels of success. I’ve always had an interest in storytelling and I think the best medium for me was acting and to act out the words in music that other people wrote. But there came a point where there were stories that I wanted to tell and there were characters that I wanted to explore. So I took couple of classes and I just started putting that down on paper. It’s incredibly fun for me. I still have a long way to go in terms of honing that craft and perfecting that craft, but it is indeed something that I do enjoy very much.

You seem to enjoy various fields of arts. How do you envision your future?

I definitely feel that producing is in my future. The more I work as an actor and the more experience that I get and at the end of the day, the older that I get, the more I realize I want to contribute to how a story is told, rather than just live in the part that I’m given. Also, whether it’s something that I’ve worked on or something that needs a collection of people to help put it together, I’d love to see something that I started from its inception be on stage and show it in front of an audience.

So directing and producing is something that I see in the future. But there’s nothing that fulfills and satisfies me more at present than performing, which I hope to do for a long time.

Is there a certain role in a musical that you wish to take in the near future?

I’m a big Stephen Sondheim fan. I was blessed to work with him on a piece called “Pacific Overtures” in New York. His work is inspiring and I feel like he does some things that nobody else does. I’d love to play Bobby in his musical “Company” someday before I get too old. It’s a show that I think is incredibly strong and I think the characters are incredibly layered. Also for me, original work is really inspiring ? creating a character, and being the first person to be able to give life to words on a page.

PROFILE

Michael Lee

Date of birth: June 5, 1973

Stage Performances:

- In the U.S. Allegiance (2012), Pacific Overtures (2004-2005) Aladdin (2002), Rent (2000), Jesus Christ Superstar (2000, 2011); Beijing Spring (1999); Miss Saigon (1991-2001)

- In Korea Miss Saigon (2006, 2010)

Award: Craig Noel Award for “Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical, Male,” with the musical “Allegiance.”


By Yim Seung-hye [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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