On stage is the place to be for rookie Yang Hee-jun: The ‘Swag Age: Shout Out, Joseon!’ star on following his passion for theater
After premiering on home soil last June, the musical has returned to the stage after a brief six-month break.
The musical was first produced by students from Seoul Institute of the Arts in 2017 as a way of polishing their acting skills, but the production ended up being well-received by the public and critics.
The musical succeeded in attracting investment from a local entertainment company and made its official debut in June 2019.
Just months after its premiere, the musical was nominated for 11 awards at the Korea Musical Awards held in January, and the male and female leads of the show each took home the Rookie of the Year award.
Set in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the musical’s premise is that sijo (a traditional poetic format) is the country’s ideology, but denizens are not allowed to write or recite sijo. But for the first time in 15 years, the ban has been lifted. To commemorate the return of sijo, a nationwide competition is held, and people relieve their pent-up desire for freedom and equality through their own poems.
When talking about the success of the musical, one name comes to mind — musical actor Yang Hee-jun, who has become synonymous with the show.
Looking at the way the 30-year-old actor sings and dances on stage full of energy, it is hard to believe that “Swag Age: Shout Out, Joseon!” is his debut show.
“The entire musical itself is like a festival so you can immerse yourself in it. It’s unfortunate that we have to perform in days like this [due to the coronavirus outbreak],” said Yang.
“But I feel grateful to those who have come to the theater to see me performing. They keep me alive. I want to return the love the audience gives me,” Yang added.
Although the musical unfolds in ancient times and actors are clad in shabby hanbok (traditional Korean dress), gukak (traditional Korean music) is being blended with hip-hop and traditional mask dance originated from the Bongsan region of Hwanghae Province of North Korea is performed along with street dance of today, but the odd combination feels natural.
Yang compared the musical’s popularity to the current craze over trot music.
Trot music used to be considered a genre that was only enjoyed by older people, but that idea is beginning to change. Yang said some of the old tradition portrayed in the musical is being reinterpreted with modern touches.
“A lot of people think trot music is only enjoyed by seniors, but the music has become the hottest genre now. The same goes for our musical. The Korean elements [embedded in the musical] do not look old-fashioned, and they are represented in interesting ways. If you can find a happy medium between being traditional and modern, you can blur the lines between the two.”
Of the people who have come a long way to see “Swag Age: Shout Out, Joseon!,” a lot have become avid fans who keep watching the show over and over again because they can’t get enough of the musical.
The country’s musical market has become quite mature in recent years. It is no easy task to please audiences who have grown up watching performances and have developed an eye for the craft. With hundreds of musicals coming and going every year, the success of “Swag Age: Shout Out, Joseon!” is considered a feat because the highly competitive market is mostly dominated by licensed musicals.
When asked what the show’s secret to success is, Yang said, “Koreans can easily relate to the story because it’s full of the Korean sentiments of han and heung.”
Han is roughly translated to a feeling of long-held sorrow and resentment, while heung means the spirit of energy that is believed to be within all Koreans.
In addition, the actors consider the audience to be an important part of the musical.
“There is this scene in which actors say, ‘All of you here will be witnesses’ by pointing out them. We also offer a lot of events such as ‘Sing-along Day’ and ‘Special Curtain Call Day.’ I feel like I’m having a party with the audience. I’m so amazed by looking at the way they sing along with us. They even sing along to my rap part,” said Yang with a laugh.
Yang may look like a natural-born star after debuting with a lead role and winning the Rookie of the Year award for his first major role, but there were days when he felt lost during the process.
Deep in his heart, Yang wanted to become an actor, but he chose to major in business administration when he advanced to college, thinking that the decision would lead him to a stable job.
“After a single semester, I realized I wasn’t suited for [business administration.] I dropped out of college and began to think about what to do next.
“Since middle and high school, I felt something burning inside of me whenever I saw people performing on stage. At a school festival, there are two groups of people: those on stage and those in the crowd. I wanted be on that stage. I longed to be on stage, so I once joined a school band. The intense feeling I had when performing kept coming to me.”
Yang decided to become an actor but did not know how to start. “I thought I had to join a theater troupe in Daehangno and put up posters for the troupe to become an actor. But I found a way to become an actor while I was serving in the military,” said Yang.
Daehangno, located in central Seoul, is widely known as a district that is crowded with theater troupes and small theaters. A lot of young actors start their careers there.
“I was an assistant instructor in the military so I had to scan the personal information of the new recruits. One day, I saw [new recruits] who had graduated from art colleges. I called them forward and just asked them to act out a snake or an apple. They were so good at it. I loved the way they did it with their whole self. All the other soldiers burst into laughter, but I was so inspired. I made it a goal of mine to go to an art college.”
As for the reason he choose musicals, Yang said that it was the most attractive way to perform on stage.
During an interview with JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, the actor was full of energy and answered questions with his whole body.
“I wanted to do everything, from singing to dancing to acting. Musicals had everything. I like the way actors exaggerate and express their emotions. Dozens of people come on stage all of a sudden and sing and dance. I like to see their energy.
“My role model is Hong Kwang-ho. I want to match his energy and presence on stage. After all, I have to find my own weapon that I can use to win over audiences and strike a chord with them.”
BY YOO JU-HYUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
국악•힙합 뒤섞인 난장…수퍼 루키, 객석을 들었다 놨다
스타 배우도, 유명 창작진도, 첨단 장비를 동원한 세트도 없다. 그런데 인기절정이다. 초연 6개월만에 앙코르 무대에 오른 뮤지컬 ‘스웨그에이지: 외쳐, 조선!’ 얘기다. 서울예대 재학생들의 ‘학사 뮤지컬’로 개발된 풋풋한 무대지만 올해 초 제4회 한국뮤지컬어워즈에서 11개 부문 후보에 올라 남녀 신인상을 모두 수상한 뮤지컬 시장의 뜨거운 이슈다.
낯선 얼굴의 주연 배우 양희준(30)은 이 작품과 동의어다. 데뷔 무대라는 것이 믿기지 않는 실력도 놀랍지만, 무엇보다 그가 뿜어내는 엄청난 에너지에 관객도 덩달아 힘을 얻는다. “공연 자체가 잔치분위기라 더 잔치스럽게 즐길 수 있는데, 상황이 아쉽죠. 요즘 같은 시기에도 매일같이 보러 오시는 팬들이 저를 지켜주신다 생각해요. 힘든 발걸음에 확실한 보답을 해드리고 싶습니다.”
‘시조(時調)’가 국가 이념이었던 가상의 조선에서 역모 사건으로 시조 활동을 금지당한 백성들이 자유와 평등을 외치는 이야기다. 허름한 한복 의상을 걸치고 시조를 읊는 무대가 전혀 예스럽지 않다. 국악과 힙합이 뒤섞이고 봉산탈춤과 스트릿댄스가 절묘하게 어우러지는, 이 시대 가장 ‘한국적인’ 뮤지컬이랄까.
양희준은 이 작품의 인기를 최근의 트로트 열풍에 비유했다. 자칫 올드하게 느껴질 수 있는 전통을 현대적인 연출로 세련되게 재해석해냈다는 것이다. “사실 ‘트로트’하면 할아버지 세대가 좋아하는 장르로 알고있었는데 지금 가장 핫한 장르가 됐잖아요. 저희도 한국적인 요소가 옛것처럼 보이지 않고, 재밌고 색다른 매력으로 느껴지게 연출한 것이죠. 한국 고유의 정서와 현대적인 것을 잘 융합하면 충분히 경계를 허물 수 있는 것 같아요.”
객석엔 유난히 ‘덕후’들이 많다. 매일같이 ‘회전문을 도는’ 관객들이 사소한 개그에도 빵빵 터진다. 뛰어난 예술성이 아니라 학생들의 풋풋함으로 가득한 무대가 한껏 눈높이가 높아진 관객들의 마음을 사로잡은 이유는 뭘까. “한과 흥이라는 한국인의 정서와 잘 맞아떨어진 작품이라 공감이 쉬운 것도 있지만, 배우들이 관객과의 거리를 생각하지 않고 같이 노는 기분으로 공연해서 그런 것 같아요. 관객들을 가리키며 ‘많은 백성들이 증인이 될 것’이라고 하는 것처럼, 무대와 객석을 동화시켜 다같이 공연하는 느낌인 거죠. ‘싱어롱 데이’ ‘스페셜 커튼콜 데이’ 등 이벤트도 많고, 정말 같이 잔치하는 기분이에요. 노래 따라 하시는 걸 보면 정말 신기하죠. 제가 부르는 어려운 랩까지 소화하시던데요.(웃음)”
데뷔작부터 주연을 맡아 신인상까지 받으며 승승장구하고 있으니 ‘본투비 배우’같지만, 방황도 있었다. 어린 시절부터 품었던 무대에 대한 로망을 묻고 진로가 무난한 경영학과에 들어간 것이다. “한 학기를 다니고 이 길이 아닌 걸 확실히 깨달았죠. 바로 자퇴부터 한 뒤, 뭘 해야 되나 고민했어요. 사실 중고등학교 때부터 막연하게 무대를 보면 뜨거워지는 게 있었거든요. 학교 축제만 해도 무대 위에 있는 사람이 있고 무대 아래 있는 사람이 있잖아요. 저는 무대 위에 있고 싶었어요. 무작정 무대를 동경해 밴드부에 들기도 했죠. 그때 느낀 뜨거움이 자꾸 생각나더라구요.”
배우가 되기로 결심했지만, 길을 찾은 건 군대에서다. “배우하려면 무조건 대학로 극단 찾아가 벽보부터 붙여야 되는 줄 알았거든요. 근데 군대에서 크게 배웠어요. 제가 조교라 애들 신상을 보니 예대를 나온 애들이 있길래 앞으로 불러놓고 ‘너 뱀 해봐, 3초 준다’ ‘사과 해봐, 3초 준다’고 했죠. 정말 기가 막히게 하는데, ‘이건 사과다’ 싶더군요.(웃음) 그 당당함도 멋있었구요. 애들은 웃지만 저는 충격이었죠. 예대를 가야겠다는 목표를 그렇게 세웠어요.”
기왕 가장 뜨거운 무대를 찾아 뮤지컬을 택했단다. 인터뷰를 하면서도 에너지를 주체 못해 온몸으로 연기하듯 대답하는 그를 보고 있자니, 뮤지컬의 과장된 에너지 그 자체다 싶다. “노래만 하거나 춤만 추거나 연기만 하는 게 아니라 그 모든 걸 역동적으로 다 하며 뜨겁고 화려한 걸 만들어보고 싶은데, 그게 뮤지컬이었어요. 감정을 과하게 표현하는 것도 멋있고요. 난데없이 몇 십 명이 나와서 춤추고 노래하는, 그 에너지도 너무 좋았죠. 홍광호 선배가 롤모델인데, 가창력이 아니라 에너지와 카리스마를 닮고 싶어요. 무대 위에서 사람들을 벅차게 하고, 심장을 때리는 저만의 무기를 찾아야겠죠.”