Kang Ha-neul plays the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald in ongoing Sondheim musical "Assassins" at Yonkang Hall of Doosan Art Center. The show runs through Feb. 3. / Courtesy of Sem Company
By Kwon Mee-yoo
It's been about a month since the third Korean production of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" opened in Yonkang Hall of Doosan Art Center in central Seoul and Kang Ha-neul, 22, who is playing the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, now understands the character better than ever before.
"The stage is new and fresh to me every day. There is never perfection and something has to be changed all the time," Kang said at an interview with The Korea Times.
The provocative musical with Sondheim's difficult yet stylish music revolves around nine people who assassinated or attempted assassinating U.S. presidents from John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln, to Oswald, the supposed assassinator of John F. Kennedy. The show is set in a fictional carnival shooting game, where the Proprietor cajoles them to shoot the presidents. Another fictional character is the Balladeer, who narrates and makes sarcastic remarks to the assassinators from the point of view of the general public.
At first, the Balladeer and Oswald were played by two separate actors on off-Broadway, but when it moved to Broadway, one actor played both the Balladeer and Oswald. Kang sees the two characters as basically the same person.
"The Balladeer appears in three scenes with Booth, Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau. These three are successful assassinators, while the others attempted to kill the president," he said. "The Balladeer condemns the assassins and says they assassinated the President because he wanted attention, love or nobody listened to what he said, but in fact Oswald had all these aspects."
Kang added that the reasons for the assassinations of the others is revealed, but Oswald's purpose still remains hidden. "The Oswald scene is a bit of fantasy since nobody really knows why he killed President Kennedy, so I have a rather wider range of expression in portraying Oswald," he said. "I try to play Oswald as a tender-hearted person who lacks attachment."
Participating in a Sondheim show is a dream for musical actors and Kang is no exception. "I really wanted to do a Sondheim show and now I'm starting to hate him, because the music is so difficult," Kang said. "The melody and accompaniment move separately and Sondheim used three, six or seven beats per measure, which is quite unusual. I listened to the songs hundreds of times a day to familiarize myself with the music."
However, he looked more than happy to be a part of this challenging show. Kang said transforming from the Balladeer into Oswald on stage gives him pride, which cannot be felt at other shows.
"When I walk out after the transformation, I truly feel that I am different from breathing to my pace. It is a rare opportunity to play such characters in a show," Kang said.
The current production of "Assassins," directed by actor Hwang Jung-min who is also a part of the cast playing Guiteau, is much brighter and has a lot of black humor compared to previous Korean productions.
"I like ‘Assassins' because it portrays a dark theme wittily, peppered with humor. I think being a good black comedy is the sophisticated charm of this show," Kang said. "Hwang is a good director and he imagines the big picture and helps actors with details at the same time. I think it is possible because he is an actor and director."
He added that: "I don't think this musical is about real assassins, but just lonely people. I hope the audiences listen to their story and question why they made such choices," the actor said.
Kang started his acting career at the age of 16 through a musical "Carpe Diem." His credits cover theater ("Thrill Me" and "Spring Awakening"), television ("For You in Full Blossom") and movie ("You're My Pet"), but his heart is always in theater.
"I insist on being on stage to shed tears at the curtain call. I love the thrill when I poured everything into my acting and breathing the same air with audiences. I feel truly communicating with them," the actor said.
After appearing on the drama "For You in Full Blossom" this summer, Kang is gaining popularity overseas. "Some Japanese fans come to see my show and I even met fans from Mongolia," he said. "I feel really happy when these fans come to see my show and communicate with me."
"Assassins" runs through Feb. 3. Tickets cost 40,000-80,000 won. After Dec. 28, purchase three tickets and get the fourth one for free. For more information, visit ticket.interpark.com or call (02) 6925-5600.