Seamlessly transitioning to become professional musical actors, MJ and JinJin of the K-pop boy band ASTRO are set to take the stage as the lead actors in the upcoming musical, "Winter Wanderer," slated to open on Dec. 15.
The two shared excitement over their new adventure during an interview with The Korea Times at the headquarters of Fantagio in Gangnam District, Seoul, Wednesday.
Although they have been well-established as idols since debuting in 2016, both MJ and JinJin are comparatively fresh faces in the world of musicals.
In 2020, MJ marked his impressive debut as the title role in the musical "Jamie," and garnered acclaim for his portrayal of Daniel in the 2021 production of "Jack the Ripper." JinJin made his musical debut with "Dream High" earlier this year, captivating audiences with his dynamic charm.
Now, with "Winter Wanderer," JinJin is embarking on his second musical project.
"It's an honor to be part of a musical based on such a renowned novel and film. Although I'm still relatively new to the musical stage, I'm giving it all I have to deliver a memorable performance," he said.
The musical "Winter Wanderer" is an adaptation of a 1983 novel by the late Choi In-ho (1945-2013), a master of contemporary Korean literature. The story, which explores love and conflicts of youth, was originally adapted into a film in 1986 and into a drama in 1990.
First staged in 1997 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Seoul Arts Center, the musical version achieved wide acclaim among Korean fans. After an 18-year hiatus following the 2005 production, the musical is returning to the KEPCO Art Center concert hall in Seocho Distict, Seoul, from Dec. 15 to Feb. 25, 2024, promising audiences a nostalgic yet fresh experience.
For MJ, this production holds special significance as it marks his return to the stage after being discharged from the military.
Looking back on his time in the military, MJ said, "I truly missed the stage lights that were such an important part of my experience as an idol. During my time in the military, COVID-19 gradually began to subside and I found myself yearning even more for the fans' voices, support and the radiant stage lights."
In "Winter Wanderer," MJ takes on the role of Han Min-woo, a medical student entangled in unexpected events involving the secret of his birth, while JinJin portrays Park Hyun-tae, a character torn between his loyalty to Han and his feelings for Han's lover.
MJ discussed the challenges of portraying Han's complex journey, from innocence to moral struggle.
"Han is an innocent medical student, but as the story unfolds, he discovers his tragic family history and becomes entangled in it. As an actor, I worked very hard to portray a pure young man faced with a phase of depravity, and had to concentrate and totally immerse myself," he said.
JinJin also acknowledged the difficulties he faced in the role, particularly as the main rapper of ASTRO rather than a vocalist. He expressed the challenges in conveying his character's inner conflicts through songs.
"It's actually very difficult. There were a lot of dancing scenes in my previous work, 'Dream High,' but this piece relies heavily on singing. So I'm seeking a lot of help from my fellow actors. Whether it is approaching idols who have more experience in the musical world or seeking guidance from professional vocal coaches, I am open for assistance and appreciate the support," he said candidly.
The transition from being a K-pop idol to a musical theater actor is not without its challenges. MJ noted major differences between the two professions.
"When I perform as an idol, fans fervently wave their light sticks in front of me and chant along actively. But in musicals, the audience concentrates, listens and sympathizes. I think that's the biggest difference," MJ said.
K-pop singers like Ok Joo-hyun and Kim Jun-su have successfully transitioned into the realm of musical actors. However, skepticism lingers among some musical fans, questioning the competency of idols moving to the musical theater.
Both MJ and Jin Jin acknowledged such perceptions, but they are determined to overcome such biases through their evolving skills and performances.
"I understand where it's coming from. Nevertheless, it's a challenge that requires us to put in extra effort and continually improve ourselves. I see it as the same task that former idols, like us who became musical actors, need to undertake. We aim to fill in the gaps that may be perceived, leveraging the advantage of our naturally fluid movements and dancing on stage. It's about bringing that unique advantage and harmonizing it with the world of musicals," JinJin said.
As MJ and JinJin step into their new roles, they contribute to the evolving narrative of K-pop idols successfully transitioning into the world of musical theater. Their ambition extends to becoming musical actors who leave a lasting impression on the audience through their roles in "Winter Wanderer."
"With only two works under my belt so far, through this production, I simply want to demonstrate that I'm an actor who can authentically embody the character and effectively convey the message," MJ said, expressing his desire.
"I was greatly impressed by Choi Jae-rim's performance as drag queen Lola in 'Kinky Boots.' My aspiration is to evolve into a skilled actor, much like him, and perhaps grace the stage in big productions like 'Kinky Boots' in the future."
Jin Jin showed his affection for the musical, adding a touch of warmth.
"Considering the chilly weather, I hope 'Winter Wanderer' becomes a place where people can take a pause and find solace during the winter. I wish for it to evoke a sense of joy, akin to the happiness one feels while eating tangerines under a cozy blanket on a cold winter day," he said.