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Lee pursues dream in Korea and on Broadway

Korean-American theater veteran Michael K. Lee performs at the Korean production of at Charlotte Theater in southern Seoul. / Courtesy of Blue Stage" src='https://img.koreatimes.co.kr/upload/newsV2/images/17-01(358).jpg/dims/resize/740/optimize' />
Korean-American theater veteran Michael K. Lee performs at the Korean production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" which will run through Sept. 13
at Charlotte Theater in southern Seoul. / Courtesy of Blue Stage

By Kwon Mee-yoo


Korean-American theater veteran Michael K. Lee is preparing for a double life. He is currently portraying Jesus Christ in Andrew Lloyd Webber's ground–breaking rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Korea, but he will soon depart for the United States to take part in the Broadway premiere of "Allegiance ― A New Musical."

It is Lee's second time playing the titular role in Korea and he has become more comfortable compared to his stint two years ago in the rock musical depicting the final days before Christ's crucifixion.

"I think life experience is what I draw from to make the character realistic. Technically speaking, I've got two years' experience in a different culture, in a way that my heart and personality changed," Lee said at an interview with The Korea Times last week.

"It is similar to the life Jesus was had in his last three years. He probably learned how to love somebody, to spend days and nights with the same people and to part with somebody. There is a certain sense of knowing that you have to depart with somebody and in our show, Jesus knows he has to be separated with his friends from the very beginning. Having an understanding of that makes the drama stronger."

Lee is a second generation Korean-American born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1973 and he has pursued most of his career in the States. He also made a few stints in Korea where he played American soldier Chris in "Miss Saigon" in 2006 and 2010.

He returned to the land of his father in 2013 to play the title role in the Korean production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," directed by Lee Gi-na. His portrayal of Jesus Christ torn between being a man and Messiah received rave reviews from critics while building a strong fan base in Korea.

After finishing a six-week run in Superstar 2013, he could have gone back to the States right away. Lee was in talks to reprise his role in the critically-acclaimed world premiere of "Allegiance" on the Great White Way, when the show was aiming for a Broadway run in the 2013-14 season.

However, difficulties of securing a suitable theater on Broadway pushed back the production schedule and Lee stayed in Korea a little while longer with his family, which eventually changed his life.

"After Superstar was finished, I had an open heart. I didn't know whether I want to stay or leave. But at that point, my home was in the U.S. and I wanted to go home and keep working there," Lee said.

However, it was Lee's wife who spoke to his heart. "My wife has good sense. After having studied the musical industry here, she realized that there would be more opportunities for me to play stronger roles than in the U.S.," the actor said. "My wife said if we are in Korea, my face isn't going to limit my career. It's an opportunity that I don't take for granted (in the U.S.)."

While he was recuperating after the daunting run of Superstar in Korea, "fate" came to Lee ― the Korean production of the French musical "Notre-Dame de Paris" was looking for an actor to play poet-narrator Gringoire to fill in and Lee was available. "It felt like god or my destiny was there for that role. Maybe it was a sign," Lee recalled.

Since then Lee has taken on more roles in Korea, where the theater industry has grown remarkably in the past decade. He has become a favorite of Korean producers and directors with his stage-presence, subtle character interpretation and remarkable singing. He played Dutilleul in another French show "Le Passe Muraille" and Tick in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," both roles hard to be performed by an Asian-descent actor in the U.S.

Lee's breakthrough came when he challenged a Korean musical "Seopyeonje," where he played a defiant son in a traditional Korean music family. He had to understand "han," a collective sentiment of resentment and regret, which is unique to Korean culture. Though Lee looks just like a Korean, he is an American to the bone, having been born and raised there so the feeling of han was unfamiliar to him.

"For me the idea of han was inner longing, struggle and regret. It is a very Korean thing," Lee said. "Anytime I don't want to pretend when I act. I want to be honest. So I had to understand it. What helped me in the show is that my character Dong-ho had trouble relating to that too. He wanted to run away from it, but closer it comes."

Lee faced the so-called "Yellow Ceiling" as an actor in the U.S. Roles Lee played on Broadway are mostly Asians ― Thuy in "Miss Saigon," Kayama in "Pacific Overtures" and now Frankie Suzuki in "Allegiance."

"Allegiance," set during World War II, revolves around Japanese-American people in an internment camp, who become torn between loyalty to their family and allegiance to their country. Lee plays the role of Frankie, who fights for civil rights with fellow Americans in the camp and leads a rebellion with his inherent sense of justice. The show features top actors of Asian descent including George Takei of the "Star Trek" series, Lea Salonga who is the first actress of Asian descent to win a Tony Award and Telly Leung of "Glee" fame.

Lee almost gave up the chance to be on Broadway because he decided to dedicate his time to play Jesus in Korea, but timing worked out and Lee will fly to the U.S. in early September to join "Allegiance."

"I think it is a good story. It is a part of American history and tells about people who kept the American spirit," Lee said. "I can relate to the story very well. My soul is American, but my face made me a foreigner in the U.S."

The lack of roles for Asian actors is not just Lee's problem on Broadway despite the expanding presence of actors of Asian descent. There are a few shows that can cast Asian actors on Broadway such as "Miss Saigon" and "King & I," but in those shows, Asians are described as foreigners.

"That is why Allegiance is different and important. Characters in Allegiance are Americans. This is a change for Broadway audiences to experience," Lee said. "What it means to be an American is different from what it was 100 years ago and there are producers and directors who are ready to present the world as it is on stage."

While he has high expectations for the success for Allegiance's Broadway run, Lee remains open-minded about his future as he was two years ago.

"I am going to New York to do a show. But My home is Korea and I will come back as soon as I can," Lee said. "I am not the kind of actor who anticipates roles. I will do whatever is available, what fits me best and what myself as an actor can contribute ― any show of any size. I'm always thankful for the opportunity."

The Korean production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," starring Lee as Jesus, runs through Sept. 13 at southern Seoul's Charlotte Theater. Broadway's new musical "Allegiance" will begin previews Oct. 6 at the Longacre Theatre prior to an official opening set on Nov. 8.

Korean-American theater veteran Michael K. Lee performs at the Korean production of at Charlotte Theater in southern Seoul. / Courtesy of Blue Stage" src='https://img.koreatimes.co.kr/upload/newsV2/images/17-01(358).jpg/dims/resize/740/optimize' />
Korean-American theater veteran Michael K. Lee performs at the Korean production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" which will run through Sept. 13
at Charlotte Theater in southern Seoul. / Courtesy of Blue Stage

By Kwon Mee-yoo


Korean-American theater veteran Michael K. Lee is preparing for a double life. He is currently portraying Jesus Christ in Andrew Lloyd Webber's ground–breaking rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Korea, but he will soon depart for the United States to take part in the Broadway premiere of "Allegiance ― A New Musical."

It is Lee's second time playing the titular role in Korea and he has become more comfortable compared to his stint two years ago in the rock musical depicting the final days before Christ's crucifixion.

"I think life experience is what I draw from to make the character realistic. Technically speaking, I've got two years' experience in a different culture, in a way that my heart and personality changed," Lee said at an interview with The Korea Times last week.

"It is similar to the life Jesus was had in his last three years. He probably learned how to love somebody, to spend days and nights with the same people and to part with somebody. There is a certain sense of knowing that you have to depart with somebody and in our show, Jesus knows he has to be separated with his friends from the very beginning. Having an understanding of that makes the drama stronger."

Lee is a second generation Korean-American born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1973 and he has pursued most of his career in the States. He also made a few stints in Korea where he played American soldier Chris in "Miss Saigon" in 2006 and 2010.

He returned to the land of his father in 2013 to play the title role in the Korean production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," directed by Lee Gi-na. His portrayal of Jesus Christ torn between being a man and Messiah received rave reviews from critics while building a strong fan base in Korea.

After finishing a six-week run in Superstar 2013, he could have gone back to the States right away. Lee was in talks to reprise his role in the critically-acclaimed world premiere of "Allegiance" on the Great White Way, when the show was aiming for a Broadway run in the 2013-14 season.

However, difficulties of securing a suitable theater on Broadway pushed back the production schedule and Lee stayed in Korea a little while longer with his family, which eventually changed his life.

"After Superstar was finished, I had an open heart. I didn't know whether I want to stay or leave. But at that point, my home was in the U.S. and I wanted to go home and keep working there," Lee said.

However, it was Lee's wife who spoke to his heart. "My wife has good sense. After having studied the musical industry here, she realized that there would be more opportunities for me to play stronger roles than in the U.S.," the actor said. "My wife said if we are in Korea, my face isn't going to limit my career. It's an opportunity that I don't take for granted (in the U.S.)."

While he was recuperating after the daunting run of Superstar in Korea, "fate" came to Lee ― the Korean production of the French musical "Notre-Dame de Paris" was looking for an actor to play poet-narrator Gringoire to fill in and Lee was available. "It felt like god or my destiny was there for that role. Maybe it was a sign," Lee recalled.

Since then Lee has taken on more roles in Korea, where the theater industry has grown remarkably in the past decade. He has become a favorite of Korean producers and directors with his stage-presence, subtle character interpretation and remarkable singing. He played Dutilleul in another French show "Le Passe Muraille" and Tick in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," both roles hard to be performed by an Asian-descent actor in the U.S.

Lee's breakthrough came when he challenged a Korean musical "Seopyeonje," where he played a defiant son in a traditional Korean music family. He had to understand "han," a collective sentiment of resentment and regret, which is unique to Korean culture. Though Lee looks just like a Korean, he is an American to the bone, having been born and raised there so the feeling of han was unfamiliar to him.

"For me the idea of han was inner longing, struggle and regret. It is a very Korean thing," Lee said. "Anytime I don't want to pretend when I act. I want to be honest. So I had to understand it. What helped me in the show is that my character Dong-ho had trouble relating to that too. He wanted to run away from it, but closer it comes."

Lee faced the so-called "Yellow Ceiling" as an actor in the U.S. Roles Lee played on Broadway are mostly Asians ― Thuy in "Miss Saigon," Kayama in "Pacific Overtures" and now Frankie Suzuki in "Allegiance."

"Allegiance," set during World War II, revolves around Japanese-American people in an internment camp, who become torn between loyalty to their family and allegiance to their country. Lee plays the role of Frankie, who fights for civil rights with fellow Americans in the camp and leads a rebellion with his inherent sense of justice. The show features top actors of Asian descent including George Takei of the "Star Trek" series, Lea Salonga who is the first actress of Asian descent to win a Tony Award and Telly Leung of "Glee" fame.

Lee almost gave up the chance to be on Broadway because he decided to dedicate his time to play Jesus in Korea, but timing worked out and Lee will fly to the U.S. in early September to join "Allegiance."

"I think it is a good story. It is a part of American history and tells about people who kept the American spirit," Lee said. "I can relate to the story very well. My soul is American, but my face made me a foreigner in the U.S."

The lack of roles for Asian actors is not just Lee's problem on Broadway despite the expanding presence of actors of Asian descent. There are a few shows that can cast Asian actors on Broadway such as "Miss Saigon" and "King & I," but in those shows, Asians are described as foreigners.

"That is why Allegiance is different and important. Characters in Allegiance are Americans. This is a change for Broadway audiences to experience," Lee said. "What it means to be an American is different from what it was 100 years ago and there are producers and directors who are ready to present the world as it is on stage."

While he has high expectations for the success for Allegiance's Broadway run, Lee remains open-minded about his future as he was two years ago.

"I am going to New York to do a show. But My home is Korea and I will come back as soon as I can," Lee said. "I am not the kind of actor who anticipates roles. I will do whatever is available, what fits me best and what myself as an actor can contribute ― any show of any size. I'm always thankful for the opportunity."

The Korean production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," starring Lee as Jesus, runs through Sept. 13 at southern Seoul's Charlotte Theater. Broadway's new musical "Allegiance" will begin previews Oct. 6 at the Longacre Theatre prior to an official opening set on Nov. 8.

Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr


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