'I still have such a long way to go': 'Notre-Dame's' Jung Sung-hwa reflects on a 30-year career

Musical actor Jung Sung-hwa plays Quasimodo during a scene of the ongoing production of "Notre-Dame de Paris" at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts' Grand Theater in Jung District, central Seoul. [MAST INTERNATIONAL]

Playing the hunchbacked bell ringer in “Notre-Dame de Paris” was a humbling experience for 49-year-old musical actor Jung Sung-hwa.

He joined Korea's seventh production of the timeless French musical currently running in Seoul, starring alongside well-versed actors and ensemble — some of whom have done the show hundreds and even thousands of times.

“Yoon Hyeong-ryeol [who alternates Quasimodo with Jung] celebrated his 300th ‘Notre-Dame’ performance last week, and we also recently found out that one of our ensemble dancers, Tiger, has been part of the musical for over a thousand performances,” Jung told press Wednesday in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. “I found these people profoundly admirable, and they make me look back at myself as an actor.

“I still have such a long way to go compared to them and really took on this role from base zero.”

Musical actor Jung Sung-hwa [MAST INTERNATIONAL]

“Notre-Dame de Paris” is based on the 1831 French novel by Victor Hugo. Set in the 15th century, it follows the romance between Quasimodo and his gypsy lover Esmeralda.

“I’ve always wanted to play in ‘Notre-Dame,’ ever since seeing it for the first time in Busan in my 30s — but the timing was never right, and there were already such well-established actors doing Quasidomodo that I think a part of me was a bit insecure as well,” he said. “But the schedule worked out this time, and I decided to give the audition a go.

“Now, I am relishing the show’s music and feel incredibly content to be part of the production.”

Jung as Quasimodo in the musical "Notre-Dame de Paris" [MAST INTERNATIONAL]

Jung said that he strove to differentiate his version of the character from the other two other Quasimodos, played by Yoon and Yang Joon-mo, by highlighting the character’s emotional journey.

“I want the audiences to be able to sympathize and feel a sense of jeong with Quasimodo,” he said. (Jeong is a uniquely Korean term best translated as love and attachment.)

But French musicals, compared to those originating on Broadway or in the West End, are often less audience-friendly when it comes to delivering a narrative and more focused on aesthetics. Perceiving this as a possible obstacle for Korean audiences, Jung focused on shaping a more expressive Quasimodo that was easy to follow throughout the story.

“As I settled into the role, it became increasingly important for me to act in a way that would better aid the audience’s understanding of Quasimodo’s actions and motives.”

Jung as Quasimodo in "Notre-Dame de Paris" [MAST INTERNATIONAL]

He also read his audience reviews — something the actor said he does for all his shows — to “maintain an objective eye for his performances.”

“I find it a good way for an actor to improve.”

Constant improvement is Jung’s life motto, despite the fact that he's been in the job for 30 years.

“Has it really been that long?” he exclaimed when reminded of the fact.

“I don’t ever want to settle. I love getting applause and cheers after every performance. And to fully have that moment, I believe that I need to be worthy of it, and that means endless practice.”

A scene from the musical "Notre-Dame de Paris" [MAST INTERNATIONAL]

Jung debuted as a comedian in 1994 and began acting in 1999, playing supporting roles in sitcoms and movies. He began performing in musicals in 2005. His first title role in a major show was in the 2017 production of “Man of La Mancha.” He has since gone on to become a musical superstar, best known for playing independence activist Ahn Jung-geun in “Hero” and reprising the role in the musical's movie adaptation in 2022.

“Notre-Dame de Paris” runs at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts' Grand Theater in Jung District, central Seoul, through March 24. It will then tour outside of the capital through late April, stopping in Icheon, Daegu and Busan.

To find out more about Jung Sung-hwa, visit Celeb Confirmed!