Korean production of 'Moulin Rouge!' combines talent and glamor

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Korean production of 'Moulin Rouge!' combines talent and glamor

Lee Choong-joo, right, in a scene of the ongoing musical "Moulin Rouge!" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul [CJ ENM]

Lee Choong-joo, right, in a scene of the ongoing musical "Moulin Rouge!" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul [CJ ENM]

The musical “Moulin Rouge!” is the ultimate extravaganza.  
On a decadent stage embellished to resemble a Parisian nightclub, actors in slinky outfits perform snippets of some 70 pop smash hits. The original Broadway show is said to have cost $28 million in pre-production. This may be what true “flexing” looks like in the theater.  
Ironically, however, the message that is delivered in this flashy pleasure palace is a much more humble one — that neither love nor art can be bought.  
Beneath all its glitz and glam, “Moulin Rouge!” is a love story of bohemian artists who fight for freedom against the tyranny of money. At times, the characters’ love and passion appear like a wishy-washy, futile mirage, but the story does have a transporting power that makes the audience escape reality and take a temporary trip to Paris.  
JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, met with one of the alternating male leads of the ongoing Korean production of “Moulin Rouge!,” Lee Choong-joo, 37.  

He plays Christian, an aspiring, young composer who falls in love with cabaret dancer Satine. Despite the difficulties posed by a rich duke who is also in love with Satine, the two continue their romance until Satine tragically dies of tuberculosis.  
“I want to be the Korean version of Ewan McGregor,” said Lee, who revealed that he fell in love with McGregor’s eyes in the original movie directed by Baz Luhrmann in 2001.  
“I enjoyed it so much that I watched it a few more times when I was a high school student. It was the first musical film that I ever saw, and I remember it being refreshingly shocking. When I later heard that the film was going to be made into a musical in the United States, I wanted to be part of the production. I still can’t believe that this came true. It all feels like a dream.”  
Lee Choong-joo [CJ ENM]

Lee Choong-joo [CJ ENM]

Being the first Asian production of “Moulin Rouge!,” casting was incredibly tough, with actors put through seven or eight rounds of auditions over months.  
Lee made the final cut along with actor Hong Kwang-ho who he alternates the role with.  
“Auditions are a mentally strenuous process,” said Lee, “and on top of that, I had to sing in English during this one, which I had never done before. But when I was in the room singing, it was actually fun. I felt like I was actually performing rather than auditioning. I think it was because I had prepared for it so much. I badly wanted the role. Thankfully, the foreign producers apparently said that I looked like a Christian the moment I walked into the audition room. Even during practice, I often had people telling me ‘You’re so Christian.’ These types of comments were very encouraging and energizing.”

Even though “Moulin Rouge!” is a typical love story, Lee said that “if you have to watch just one musical in your life, you must see ‘Moulin Rouge!’”  
“It is the ultimate show musical. But within all that lavishness, there is heart-wrenching drama. I think a familiar story is what can touch hearts across generations. Today, it is regarded as foolish to love like how the characters in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ love, but I believe the show allows audiences to dream about that kind of romance, even if it is for just a little while, and helps them re-energize.”  
Lee Choong-joo in a scene of the ongoing musical "Moulin Rouge!" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul [CJ ENM]

Lee Choong-joo in a scene of the ongoing musical "Moulin Rouge!" at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul [CJ ENM]

Though a veteran actor, “Moulin Rouge!” is Lee’s first time performing as a lead in a production of this magnitude.  
He debuted while he was still a vocal performance major at Kyung Hee University in 2009 in Korea’s licensed production of “Spring Awakening.”  
Since then, he has been working on his career step by step, performing in cozy theaters in Daehangno, an area comprised of a few streets in Jongno District, central Seoul, with dozens of small theaters. Lee said that it hasn’t been easy getting to the place where he is today. Sometimes, he was so stressed that he got shingles.

“Every show isn’t easy, but ‘Moulin Rouge!’ was particularly big and also the first production in Asia, so the pressure was really on,” said Lee. “But it also motivated me to work harder and my fans love it so much so it is all proving to be rewarding. My oldest fans have been cheering me on ever since the news got out that I would be starring in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ These days with this show, every moment is electrifying, from my walk to the theater to curtain call where I am covered in sweat and tears.”  
Lee earned wider public attention by appearing on JTBC’s singing competition program “Phantom Singer” in 2017. His team “Edel Reinklang” ranked third in the season and he left a deep impression on the public with his solid singing ability and charismatic tone like that of an opera singer.

Lee himself described “Phantom Singer” as a turning point in his career.  
“I learned about the power of media,” he said. “On stage, no matter how hard I sing, people don’t know about it unless they come to see the show. The competition program taught me that I had to make myself known to the world in order to do the work that I love. I actually do have many fans who came to see my musicals after seeing ‘Phantom Singer.’ I think I am here today because I went through all that, and I also think that is the reason why my fans love me. Right now, I am working, hoping that ‘Moulin Rouge!’ can be a similar turning point.”

And it just might be that.  
Many who’ve seen Lee in “Moulin Rouge!” are saying that it is his “career-defining role.” With ample experience in the pop genre, he successfully pulls off singing the musical’s pop-inflicted score that is inspired by songs such as Elton John’s “Your Song” (1970) and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (2011).

“It is my first time performing in a musical that is made up of pop, but I think I am able to get such positive responses because it is a genre that I can do well,” he said. “Even though I majored in opera singing, it is still very difficult for me [laughs]. I debuted with a pop and rock show ‘Spring Awakening’ and because of that, I was able to learn the genre early on.”

Lee is a true musician, with skills not only in singing but also in playing instruments. He left quite an impression in Korea’s licensed production of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” two years ago, when he displayed his violin skills on stage.  
Lee studied violin professionally until his sophomore year of high school. With his exceptional musical talent, he learned how to play the piano by himself and it took him just one year of preparation to enter college as a vocal major.  
But Lee was more passionate about acting than music.  
“I’ve been required to act characters with many different layers," he said. "They are still sensational shows and characters today. Actors that I worked together with at those times like Jo Jung-suk, Joo Won and Kim Mu-yeol have gone on to become huge stars in the entertainment industry. And seeing them made me realize how important it was to be a good actor at the core. My desire to act well grew since then.”

His craving for sophisticated roles was one of the reasons why he approached “Moulin Rouge!” not as just a glamorous spectacle but as a drama.  
“I'm acting as if this was a drama-centric piece because I want the audience to understand Christian's emotions, which change a lot,” he said. “Christian is the storyteller who opens and closes the show, and he also has the responsibility of being the one who brings the audience to the Moulin Rouge. In the past, I heard only dark and sexy roles were suitable for me, but now it seems that the range of acting is broadening. My goal is to be told that I am good at whatever role I play.”

“Moulin Rouge!” runs through March 5 at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul. The show is performed in Korean without English subtitles. 

BY YOO JOO-HYUN [kjdculture@joongang.co.kr]
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