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[INTERVIEW] Michael Lee challenges unconventional characters

Michael K. Lee as Hedwig in the musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' / Courtesy of Shownote
Michael K. Lee as Hedwig in the musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' / Courtesy of Shownote

By Kwon Mee-yoo


Korean-American actor Michael K. Lee is spending the busiest year ever in Korea.

This year alone, Lee played transvestite scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter in cult favorite "Rocky Horror Show," then transformed into French Emperor Napoleon in the musical "Napoleon." He yet again challenged new territory and wore wigs and makeup as Hedwig, the transgender rock musician from East Germany in the musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

At the same time, he was also a judge for the second season of television show "Phantom Singer," distinguishing gems among lesser-known musical talents from various backgrounds.

Lee is a Broadway talent who most recently appeared in "Allegiance" in 2015 and his other credits include "Miss Saigon," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Pacific Overtures" and "Rent." He was accepted to Stanford University's pre-med school, but he chose to pursue a different career.

After performing in Korea for a few shows including "Miss Saigon" and critically acclaimed "Jesus Christ Superstar," Lee finally made a decision to stay in Korea with his wife and two sons in 2013.

More opportunities opened up for Lee in Korea as his race was less limiting regarding the roles he was able to be cast for. In Korea, he does not get casted for roles because of his Broadway experience, but rather for his exceptional understanding and representation of the character and superb singing.

Lee said it depends on whether a producer wants to work with him in this busy, popular musical theater industry and whether he has time or not.

"I try to find things that challenge me and something in me to offer to the show or the role. Napoleon is very dialogue-heavy for me and I was nervous. However, in order to become a good performer; it is something I should try," Lee said at an interview with The Korea Times. "I was always fascinated by Hedwig, but never had time to fully explore yet. I was also careful of approaching the transgender character and afraid of doing an almost one-person show. In the end, I chose to challenge myself."

Michael K. Lee poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Times. / Courtesy of Lee Soo-jin
Michael K. Lee poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Times. / Courtesy of Lee Soo-jin

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has been exceptionally popular in Korea, being staged over 10 years. Looking to render the show closer to the original, the producers came up with the idea of doing an English-language production in Korea and Lee was a strong candidate to put the idea into practice.


Lee is a second generation Korean-American who barely speaks Korean and the language has become a new obstacle when he moved to the land of his father. It has provided him a new opportunity when the producers and Lee agreed to perform in English only for Lee.

"The German transgender woman is performed by a Korean actor in Korean language because we are in Korea. It's a musical set in New York City in the early 2000s and the idea of the producers was to stage the show as if it's a real event ― as though Hedwig is visiting Korea, doing a show here and sharing her life," Lee said. "We don't have to pretend to be in New York in the 2000s, so the story automatically becomes alive. Hedwig is different from all of us and made life choices we never dare to make. English adds another layer to the differences and real understanding of who he is and what shaped him."

Lee's first encounter with Hedwig was through the 2002 film, starring its writer John Cameron Mitchell.

"I was blown away and read the script after watching, but sort of left it there, because I never dreamed of playing the role," Lee said. "Two years ago, when I was doing 'Allegiance,' I had an opportunity to see Mitchell's Hedwig and it was one of the best theatrical experiences I've ever had."

Lee loves the way Mitchell finds a way to tell the story of self discovery, redemption and love through humor. "After laughing through the entire film and show, I find myself moved to tears in the end. I was fascinated by that (Mitchell) was able to attach the character to myself without knowing it."

The actor picked liberation or freedom as the word that best represents the character.

"I think in many ways, you can see Hedwig being in a prison where her life choices locked her, particularly in the beginning of the show. He goes through a sex change operation to escape from East Germany, but his love goes away and the Berlin Wall fell, which made his choice not even necessary," he elaborated. "We all make decisions and choices in our lives. These choices box you into a limited way of seeing the world, but they bring you to the point where you are now. Accepting the person and choices will set you free."

Lee and the producers of the show worked extensively on revising the script for the English language production in Korea.

"The show is beautifully written and we didn't have to change the story. We just added an introduction setting up the show in Korea, which connects with the audience here and makes them think the show's unique," Lee said.

The actor also took part in shaping the look of the transgender character who has a unique sense in presenting herself.

"If Hedwig is a real person, he would be around 50 years old now. He wouldn't be very modern, but his love for Farrah Fawcett inspired me to go for the '70s fashion," Lee said. "For makeup, I always wanted to the aggressive sort of glam rock look similar to David Bowie and Iggy Pop. I think I look a bit stronger than other actors playing the role in Korea."

In the show, Hedwig tries various wigs in the song "Wig in a Box" and Lee interprets this song as where Hedwig's biggest journey begins.

"The scene starts right at the moment where Hedwig had been in the States for a year, divorced and realizing that she has to be on her own," the actor said. "It starts melancholy and sad, but through gradual acceptance of who she is, the song becomes a celebration in the end. It is my favorite number in the drama."

At the end of the show, Hedwig walks upstage toward a light. In Lee's interpretation, Hedwig will begin a new life from there, freer than before.

"I think he goes back to Germany and breathes the air there, sort of coming to terms with where his life began. Looking back upon how that start shaped us is what we always want to do. Once he comes back from Germany, I think he will become a better, freer performer, accepting the fact that Hedwig in makeup and wig is the same person as he is and was. He might start performing both as Hedwig and Hansel. I think she will continue performing as it is part of who Hedwig is and she is great at it," Lee said.

Michael K. Lee plays Napoleon in the musical 'Napoleon.' / Courtesy of Show Media Group
Michael K. Lee plays Napoleon in the musical 'Napoleon.' / Courtesy of Show Media Group

Communication is a big theme of Hedwig and Lee tries to relate with the audiences overcoming the language barrier.


"There are different kinds of audiences and Hedwig has a very strong following here. I think those who have experienced the show in Korean understand about 70-80 percent of the show, while brand new audiences grasp about 50 percent, I hope," he said. "This show is very serious, but Korean actors have a knack of finding places for humor. Playing with the original English script emphasizes darker, serious aspects of the show," Lee said.

Lee said doing 'Hedwig' now is his first dream-come-true. "I would love to do it in Korean someday and it is going to be a long-term goal for me. In that way, I'll communicate stronger with the audiences and it will be my second dream-come-true."

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" runs through Nov. 5 at Hongik Daehangno Art Center.

Michael K. Lee as Hedwig in the musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' / Courtesy of Shownote
Michael K. Lee as Hedwig in the musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' / Courtesy of Shownote

By Kwon Mee-yoo


Korean-American actor Michael K. Lee is spending the busiest year ever in Korea.

This year alone, Lee played transvestite scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter in cult favorite "Rocky Horror Show," then transformed into French Emperor Napoleon in the musical "Napoleon." He yet again challenged new territory and wore wigs and makeup as Hedwig, the transgender rock musician from East Germany in the musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

At the same time, he was also a judge for the second season of television show "Phantom Singer," distinguishing gems among lesser-known musical talents from various backgrounds.

Lee is a Broadway talent who most recently appeared in "Allegiance" in 2015 and his other credits include "Miss Saigon," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Pacific Overtures" and "Rent." He was accepted to Stanford University's pre-med school, but he chose to pursue a different career.

After performing in Korea for a few shows including "Miss Saigon" and critically acclaimed "Jesus Christ Superstar," Lee finally made a decision to stay in Korea with his wife and two sons in 2013.

More opportunities opened up for Lee in Korea as his race was less limiting regarding the roles he was able to be cast for. In Korea, he does not get casted for roles because of his Broadway experience, but rather for his exceptional understanding and representation of the character and superb singing.

Lee said it depends on whether a producer wants to work with him in this busy, popular musical theater industry and whether he has time or not.

"I try to find things that challenge me and something in me to offer to the show or the role. Napoleon is very dialogue-heavy for me and I was nervous. However, in order to become a good performer; it is something I should try," Lee said at an interview with The Korea Times. "I was always fascinated by Hedwig, but never had time to fully explore yet. I was also careful of approaching the transgender character and afraid of doing an almost one-person show. In the end, I chose to challenge myself."

Michael K. Lee poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Times. / Courtesy of Lee Soo-jin
Michael K. Lee poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Times. / Courtesy of Lee Soo-jin

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has been exceptionally popular in Korea, being staged over 10 years. Looking to render the show closer to the original, the producers came up with the idea of doing an English-language production in Korea and Lee was a strong candidate to put the idea into practice.


Lee is a second generation Korean-American who barely speaks Korean and the language has become a new obstacle when he moved to the land of his father. It has provided him a new opportunity when the producers and Lee agreed to perform in English only for Lee.

"The German transgender woman is performed by a Korean actor in Korean language because we are in Korea. It's a musical set in New York City in the early 2000s and the idea of the producers was to stage the show as if it's a real event ― as though Hedwig is visiting Korea, doing a show here and sharing her life," Lee said. "We don't have to pretend to be in New York in the 2000s, so the story automatically becomes alive. Hedwig is different from all of us and made life choices we never dare to make. English adds another layer to the differences and real understanding of who he is and what shaped him."

Lee's first encounter with Hedwig was through the 2002 film, starring its writer John Cameron Mitchell.

"I was blown away and read the script after watching, but sort of left it there, because I never dreamed of playing the role," Lee said. "Two years ago, when I was doing 'Allegiance,' I had an opportunity to see Mitchell's Hedwig and it was one of the best theatrical experiences I've ever had."

Lee loves the way Mitchell finds a way to tell the story of self discovery, redemption and love through humor. "After laughing through the entire film and show, I find myself moved to tears in the end. I was fascinated by that (Mitchell) was able to attach the character to myself without knowing it."

The actor picked liberation or freedom as the word that best represents the character.

"I think in many ways, you can see Hedwig being in a prison where her life choices locked her, particularly in the beginning of the show. He goes through a sex change operation to escape from East Germany, but his love goes away and the Berlin Wall fell, which made his choice not even necessary," he elaborated. "We all make decisions and choices in our lives. These choices box you into a limited way of seeing the world, but they bring you to the point where you are now. Accepting the person and choices will set you free."

Lee and the producers of the show worked extensively on revising the script for the English language production in Korea.

"The show is beautifully written and we didn't have to change the story. We just added an introduction setting up the show in Korea, which connects with the audience here and makes them think the show's unique," Lee said.

The actor also took part in shaping the look of the transgender character who has a unique sense in presenting herself.

"If Hedwig is a real person, he would be around 50 years old now. He wouldn't be very modern, but his love for Farrah Fawcett inspired me to go for the '70s fashion," Lee said. "For makeup, I always wanted to the aggressive sort of glam rock look similar to David Bowie and Iggy Pop. I think I look a bit stronger than other actors playing the role in Korea."

In the show, Hedwig tries various wigs in the song "Wig in a Box" and Lee interprets this song as where Hedwig's biggest journey begins.

"The scene starts right at the moment where Hedwig had been in the States for a year, divorced and realizing that she has to be on her own," the actor said. "It starts melancholy and sad, but through gradual acceptance of who she is, the song becomes a celebration in the end. It is my favorite number in the drama."

At the end of the show, Hedwig walks upstage toward a light. In Lee's interpretation, Hedwig will begin a new life from there, freer than before.

"I think he goes back to Germany and breathes the air there, sort of coming to terms with where his life began. Looking back upon how that start shaped us is what we always want to do. Once he comes back from Germany, I think he will become a better, freer performer, accepting the fact that Hedwig in makeup and wig is the same person as he is and was. He might start performing both as Hedwig and Hansel. I think she will continue performing as it is part of who Hedwig is and she is great at it," Lee said.

Michael K. Lee plays Napoleon in the musical 'Napoleon.' / Courtesy of Show Media Group
Michael K. Lee plays Napoleon in the musical 'Napoleon.' / Courtesy of Show Media Group

Communication is a big theme of Hedwig and Lee tries to relate with the audiences overcoming the language barrier.


"There are different kinds of audiences and Hedwig has a very strong following here. I think those who have experienced the show in Korean understand about 70-80 percent of the show, while brand new audiences grasp about 50 percent, I hope," he said. "This show is very serious, but Korean actors have a knack of finding places for humor. Playing with the original English script emphasizes darker, serious aspects of the show," Lee said.

Lee said doing 'Hedwig' now is his first dream-come-true. "I would love to do it in Korean someday and it is going to be a long-term goal for me. In that way, I'll communicate stronger with the audiences and it will be my second dream-come-true."

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" runs through Nov. 5 at Hongik Daehangno Art Center.

Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr

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