Beyond The Stage: Choi Hyojung (Les Miserables)
Special reporting by: Bae Yoobin, Laser News
OUTSIDE OF the theatre, Choi Hyojung would not immediately strike one as a star.
The first time we meet, she is in the practice room, sitting in front of a keyboard peppered with silver sparkles. There is an office chair pushed out beside her, while Choi herself is perched carefully on a stool.
When I inquire about the keyboard and ask if we are to have a live show later, she laughs, shaking her head bashfully as her auburn hair falls over her eyes. She directs my attention to the plug head strewn on the matted floor, and tells me her manager thought it'd be better for pictures if we did the interview here.
Beside her, on an otherwise empty shelf, is a box of bread - ten pieces, from what I can make out, stacked atop each other. Conspicuously missing are the four awards that Choi swept from the Seoul Musical Awards two nights before.
All there otherwise is is Choi, clad in a simple gray sweater, hands folded across her lap.
There is little known about Choi, the new rising star and darling of the stage. After her breakout performance in Les Miserables, Choi has shot to fame on a seemingly endless uphill slope, so wrapped up in functions that she hasn't had the time to do an interview. The little that I knew before this, however, is that Choi has been raved about by every musical circle she's dipped her toes into. Now, slipping in as a blip on her schedule, any doubt I'd had of the veracity of their praises slips away.
Choi, I quickly discover, is earnest in a way that isn't cloying, and infinitely willing to laugh at herself. She drops a croissant on the floor in her eagerness to offer one to me, and almost giggles herself out of her chair.
Her manager, Kim Mihyun, gives something like a non-reaction before returning in no time at all with a small broom and dust pan.
After Choi has finished picking up the crumbs on the floor, she apologizes again, bustling around the room and choosing a big, doughy ball from the selection. The doughy ball is delivered to me on a plate, and Choi dusts a few fleeting crumbs on the rim onto the floor.
"I'm so sorry about that," she says, settling back down opposite me. "We can begin now."
We start off with her career: what were the inroads? When had she thought about doing musicals? What had she done before this?
She seems to take these questions in, turning them around in her mind, lips curling up.
"If you don't mind, my head is kind of in a mess right now." She smiles apologetically, revealing two perfect rows of teeth. "Is it okay if I just told you what comes to mind?"
Choi Hyojung was born in the sleepy city of Gangwon on a rainy morning (according, she says, to her mother). She'd moved to Thailand for a good six years for the family's catering business, and when she'd returned to Korea, her own mother tongue had become rough in her mouth.
"I was about fourteen when I returned, and my mother told me to choose a High School." Here, her eyes fall to her lap. "We had...some difficulties, so I elected to go to a school an hour away from our house."
She shakes her head. "Cycling." Her face lights up. "If I think about it now, it really built up my stamina for what I do today."
And was she always interested in music?
She protests vigorously this time.
"During High School, I loved Science. I love Science," she tells me, leaning forward on her stool. "I applied for an unpaid internship at a lab . I was so ready to work two extra jobs to keep that up." The way Choi delivers this is easy, light, as if it was perfectly acceptable for her. I don't ask after it.
"But they turned me down two days later, and this other application - I'd sent it in kind of hastily because it seemed like I wouldn't get it, anyway - they got back to me."
She pauses here, to take a breath. Her hand hovers over the croissant, as if she'd like to eat but feels too embarrassed to. Eventually, she drops her hand back to her lap, right over the left.
"It was an assistant job for a radio show." She stares at me, then, unsure. "Um, is it okay if I say the name?"
Unbeknownst to any of the Starry Night staff, Choi was poised to be one of the most highly sought-after musical actors South Korea has ever known. Now, she is set to fly to the United States for a run of a new musical in 2018 with an assistant of her own, only 8 years from when she'd ferried coffee through the radio show's offices.
"I would also check the scripts for typos and deliver them to the guests, things like that. So I would sit through the shows and take notes, too, just for archival purposes."
I'm about to ask Choi about her burgeoning love for music - stemming, surely, from this stint - when she lets out a little laugh.
"Gosh," she says, placing a hand on my arm like she's about to divulge a secret. "I loved the staff so much, and they are so dear to me, but I was too tired from running around to really get interested in music, you know?"
Or maybe not.
"What happened after that?"
"Fortunately, I didn't do too badly in my entrance exams. I'm not sure if this in my profile or anything, but I completed a double degree in Bioscience and Physics at Ewha Women's University."
It was most certainly not in her profile - she stops finally for a bite of her croissant, grinning as if this new piece of information meant nothing at all.
From behind me, I hear her manager say: "you have to hear what happens next."
In Ewha Women's University, there once lived a now-defunct club called The Women's Voice. The club was known for their unpretentious and feel-good stagings, and tickets for each run were much sought-after, sold out mere hours after they went on the proverbial market.
The musical of Spring 2012 was The Women's Voice's swan song, put painstakingly together entirely by the members of the club. It was their last farewell to the school, student body, and alumni that had supported them for exactly 20 years.
At the center of the production, simply titled University Musical, a lithe and beautiful voice anchored song after song. We now know her as one of the most popular trot singers in Korea: Hyun Seunghee.
As the musical reached its climax, Seunghee and Lee Sandeul, a friend who was specially invited to star in the play, segued into their final, triumphant rendition of the song Breaking Free. Behind them, tucked away among cardboard greenery, was a brightly chorusing tree.
Choi tells the story like she's done it a million times, and her manager still guffaws at all the right parts, clapping her hands and laughing.
It's hard not to get swept up in it, this infectiously uplifting tale.
The birth of a star happened on bus number 193, headed for Daehyeon-Dong gas station on a dreary morning in 2011. Choi still remembers that beside her was a man nodding off on her shoulder, and on the other side, a girl blasting music so loud an elderly lady stood up to reprimand her
Ewha Women's University, Choi explains, has a strict punctuality policy. On the first day of school, Choi and an unacquainted school-mate had taken the same bus in the wrong direction, realizing only when they'd ended up on the other side of the city that they may have made a mistake.
"In our defence," Choi smiles, "the numbers were really hard to make out in the dark."
"We were to make amends by helping out with the musical. She (the other girl on the bus) played the piano, and she was really really good, so they made her their resident pianist - their usual one was on a student exchange. I," she continues with a laugh, "I was asked to sing."
Her manager has settled down on an extra chair beside her at this point, and the way she anticipates the rest of the story seems almost as if she'd experienced it herself.
I hazard a guess that Ms Kim was the other girl, and they both exchange a glance before laughing at each other. "Mihyun made my wonderful tree costume. She volunteered for it, if you can believe it." The look on Choi's face seems to say that she surely can, and the photos they retrieve later for me attest to a brilliantly detailed wearable Christmas tree.
"After practice was over, I just started waiting for the other girl. She was the last to go, you see, had to finish up the runs with everyone. But I felt like we were in it together, you know?"
She brings a hand to her mouth. "Gosh, sorry, I'm blabbering."
The interview has gone on for a good two hours now, but she seems only to be getting more animated by the second. Even after I reassure her that there's no hurry, she chops everything shorter, seeming even to save on rounding out her words. "To cut the story short, she would ask me to sing the songs with her, and she asked me about my favourite songs, and we would practice those, too. That," she says, a little breathless, "was when I fell in love."
Choi pins me with a steady look, suddenly. "With music."
There is a different kind of smile on Choi's face now, wistful and fond all at once. They must have been great friends, I ask.
"Oh," she says, snapping out of a brief moment of repose. "We are."
Following her turn as a singing tree, Choi dabbled in musicals outside of Ewha, at small black-box theaters and part-time castings. In the same breadth of time, Choi's family found themselves on steady ground. For the first time in her life, Choi had the choice to dabble in uncertainty.
So, she graduated with two degrees and one goal in her heart: to get onto the stage.
"Younha-sunbaenim (from her Starry Night days) helped me tremendously. I have her to thank, a thousand times over."
From here, Choi's history corresponds with the information that I had gathered from her otherwise blurry past. She was cast, first, as an extra in a staging of a failed musical that was cancelled a month into its run. After a string of failed plays, Choi found herself as a supporting actress in Sunny, an adaptation of an old movie that had found new life on the stage.
In a special staging on a Saturday night, Choi caught the attention of Kim Jong-Moon, internationally acclaimed stage director, who recommended her for the role of Cosette in the new heavily-backed Korean production of Les Miserables.
Following her breakout success in Les Mis, Choi broke into the mainstream with her appearance on the beloved show that highlights musicians from every part of the industry. Choi had worn a mask of a crescent moon and moved the hearts of Korea with an emotional rendition of Heejae. Offers for CFs and appearances have only flooded in with greater intensity since, leaving Choi's manager to sit tirelessly by the phone. Even now, Ms Kim is outside the door, taking a call from yet another suitor.
And then, we wind here, to where Choi is, sitting in front of me, a week away from her plane ride to the States.
She wrings her hands together nervously, staring at me in silence, a long one that signals that she's come to the end of her story.
Choi bids me farewell the same way she does most things: with a bright, nearly blinding smile. Before I leave, there is a careful knock on the door and a mousy girl who peeks her head from behind it.
"Oh," the girl says, surprised, before Choi motions for her to come in.
"Am I interrupting?" She has a bag of bubble tea in her hands.
Choi smiles. "You're right on time, actually." She pulls one cup of milk tea from the bag and offers it to me. I've already clipped my bag closed, sling over my shoulder. "Please, do stay to finish the drink." Choi glances at the clock. "Oh, gosh, or do take it with you, you can drink it on the way home. Would you prefer less sugar? I have that too."
Before Choi can extend further overwhelming hospitality to me despite my intrusion, I take the drink from her hands gratefully.
"I wanted to introduce you to her," Choi tells me, as she hands the drink over, and the lilt of her voice says more than enough. "I didn't know if I could give you her name without her permission, so..."
The girl shakes her head fondly at Choi, looking over to me. "Did she tell you I was a prodigy who started playing when I was five? That's one of her favourite lies."
Up close, the girl sheds the timid air that surrounded her when looked upon from afar. Her shoulders are pulled back slightly, her smile warm and unguarded, casual and confident.
Shin Hyejin, I discover, is now a valued member of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. She'd started small, too, in a local Orchestra in her hometown of Pohang, and still goes back to tutor fresh-faced additions.
I hadn't expected to meet another gifted musician in the same day, but it seems that birds of a feather do find it hard to stay away from each other.
The lights outside the WM building are flickering out by the time I leave at 9 p.m.
The entertainment company had signed Choi as a musical actress shortly after her first appearance in Sunny, before Kim Jong-Moon had even seen Choi and found her a revelation.
It was, surely, an odd move by an entertainment company that also houses B1A4 and Oh My Girl, groups wrapped up and packaged for a niche market of a very different kind.
Inside the building, there is a slogan in English printed carefully under the large W M letters. It means: Where stars are born and legends are made.
"And what do you think of the future? With your new musical and popularity, there must be a lot of weight on your shoulders." This was asked in the twilight of the interview, where Choi had become significantly more relaxed, her fingers twined with Shin's own. She looked almost as if she were considering giving me a stock answer, but seemed to change her mind at the very last second.
"I'll be honest with you," she said, leaning closer and whispering conspiratorially, "I'm really really scared." And then, a pause. "But overcoming fear is how stars are born, right?"
Choi did end up giving me a small live show of the songs from Sunny, with an obliging Shin on the keyboard.
Even as I board the taxi home, Choi's voice lingers in my ears, her warm smile still on my mind.
Perhaps it wasn't too odd a move after all.
Bae Yoobin is a freelance writer for the Music & Pop Culture department of Laser News. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.