A scene from the musical “Hero,” which portrays patriotic icon Ahn Jung-geun (played by Chung Sung-hwa, center) in a humanistic light. The production will travel to the United States next year.
/ Courtesy of Acom International
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Chung Sung-hwa has independence activisit Ahn Jung-geun down pat — down to the trademark moustache. The 35-year-old portrays the national icon in the homegrown musical “Hero,” which seeks to share the patriot’s life with an international audience next year.
Premiering in 2009, this is the second presentation of the performance and Chung has been playing the patriot for both runs.
“Many male actors may want to play the role of Ahn but I thought I had to audition for this,” Chung told The Korea Times during an interview, Wednesday.
He debuted as a comedian in 1994, but people now remember him as a musical actor who successfully played the role of Don Quixote in the 2007 musical “Man of La Mancha.” He is now known as an actor with great depth and profundity after appearing in musicals such as “Brothers Were Brave,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and most recently “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
After being chosen for the role of the independence fighter, he visited Harbin, China, with the creative team for inspiration on how to best portray the “hero” of Korea, despite the cold weather which was some 40 degrees Celsius below zero.
“We visited Harbin Train Station where Ahn assassinated Ito Hirobumi and Lushun Prison, where he was afterwards incarcerated. The spot where Ahn shot the Japanese high-ranking official who led the Korea-Japan annexation was marked just with a triangle, and there was no explanation due to possible diplomatic rows,” Chung said.
“The experience was equal to reading some 100 books on Ahn in Korea. If I get a chance, I also want to pay a visit to the shrine of Toshichi Chiba, a prison guard impressed by Ahn, to see the calligraphic works of the independence activist.”
For this year’s rendition, Chung focuses on the more empathetic aspects of the figure. “Before being a patriot, Ahn was just a human being who laughed and cried. I try to portray Ahn as he was, based on his earnest desire to save the country,” he said.
“I think of Ahn as a soldier, educator and clergyman. For this run, I have been focusing more on the educational aspect of his work, which is known today as the ‘Peace of East Asia’ philosophy.”
Production company Acom International (“The Last Empress”) plans to stage “Hero” in the United States next year. Proud of the current production, Chung thinks the acute philosophies of Ahn can be appreciated across the globe.
“We can appeal to the international audiences through universal feelings, and a little historical background can help them understand Ahn’s life,” he said.
“Hero” has also earned Chung greater recognition — he won best male leading actor at the Musical Awards in June and the Korea Musical Awards in October, two major musical-related awards in Korea.
It is the first time for an actor to win both awards in the same year, but Chung did not seem to be puffed up by arrogance.
“When a person thinks of one’s ranking, he or she is likely to be haughty. So I put the trophies in my parent’s display cupboard and came back down to earth, to the stage,” the actor said.
One of Chung’s dream roles would be Jean Valjean in the musical “Les Miserables.”
“I would also like to play the character of Javert the inspector when I get older. I’ve always wanted to play the villain but I have not had the chance yet,” he said. “The bad guys have their own reasoning, and their actions could be considered virtuous to them. Ito in ‘Hero’ is a villain, but he has an opportunity to explain his side through the songs.”
Chung emphasized the musical is entitled “Hero,” instead of titled after the independence fighter “Ahn Jung-geun.” “We do not force patriotism here. I hope the audience comes to the theater with an open mind to enjoy the show,” he said.
The musical runs through Jan. 15, 2011, at Haeoreum Theater in the National Theater of Korea with English subtitles. Chung alternates the role of Ahn with actors Yang Joon-mo and Shin Sung-rok.