Musical actor Jeong Sun-ah consoles the audience no matter their choice in 'If/Then'

Jeong Sun-ah is the lead in the ongoing musical "If/Then" which runs through Feb. 26 at Hongik Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul. [SHOWNOTE]

What if? What then?

Musical diva Jeong Sun-ah, 38, is at the pinnacle of her career as possibly the most loved female musical actor in the country right now. A question that she is often asked, she said, is “What if you hadn’t become a performer? What would you have done then?”

Through a true-to-life character named Elizabeth in the ongoing musical “If/Then,” Jeong, in an interview Monday in Jongno District, central Seoul, said that she is exploring the mysterious workings of choice and chance in life.

She is alternating the lead role with actors Yuria and Park Hye-na.

“If/Then” is about Elizabeth, who is on the verge of turning 40 and is hoping for a fresh start in New York City. A few minutes into the show, she is presented with a simple choice: Will she go with her college friend Lucas for activist work or will she go with her neighbor Kate to check out a sexy male playing guitar at the park? From there, the musical’s plot splits into two: one with married Liz with kids, and the other with successful city planner Beth who has trouble committing to a person and finding love.

“If/Then” opened on Broadway in 2014 after its first Washington D.C. production the year prior. Behind the contemporary musical is the same trio who created the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next To Normal” — director Michael Grief, writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt. Actors such as Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp starred in lead roles in the production. The musical received two Tony Award nominations in 2014: Best Actress in a Musical for Menzel’s portrayal of Elizabeth and Best Original Score.

When Jeong was first offered the role of Elizabeth, she didn’t know too much about the show, other than its rhythmic music and the fact that Menzel had starred in it on Broadway.

But after she read the script, Jeong very quickly came to the conclusion that she “needed” to play the part.

“It was like reading my own story!” she said. “I felt drawn to Elizabeth very quickly because I could sympathize with her in a very real way. On stage actually, I barely have to act because Elizabeth is just so… me!”

Musical actor Jeong Sun-ah [PALM TREE ISLAND]

So just a few weeks after she gave birth last May, Jeong began exercising and taking vocal lessons.

“I had gained 22 kilograms [48 pounds] and was just terrified by that as someone who doesn’t have the easiest time keeping my weight in check. My changed body post-partum also messed with my self-esteem, but my goal of getting back on stage for ‘If/Then’ kept me from falling apart.”

And once she was finally on stage on opening night, she was able to wash off all the insecurities that she had been experiencing.

“I cried my eyes out afterward,” she said. “I will always cherish that first performance.”

Jeong Sun-ah is the lead actor in the ongoing musical "If/Then" at Hongik Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul. [SHOWNOTE]

Jeong made her debut in musical theater at the age of 19. Cast as Mimi in the Korean production of “Rent,” she very quickly rose to stardom, going on to appear in dozens of large licensed productions. She is best known by the local public as Glinda in “Wicked” and Amneris in “Aida.”

Jeong hasn’t starred in many original Korean shows or smaller productions in the more cozy theaters of Daehangno, an area comprised of a few streets in Jongno District, central Seoul, with dozens of small theaters. The handful of original shows that she did star in, such as “Haeeohwa” in 2007 and “Song of Two Flowers” in 2012, barely matched the success that she was seeing in her other big licensed musicals.

“About 10 years into my acting career, in my 30s, I began to crave scripts with complex stories that required more detailed acting. I also wanted to try acting inside a smaller theater where I am closer to the audience,” she said.

Behind these desires was her wish to overcome her fear of performing in a more intimate space.

“Oddly enough, I am the most nervous when I sing at weddings!” Jeong said.

But the opportunity didn’t come easily, and even when it did, she found herself backing out of it because she was afraid.

“That fear would pop up when I thought about deviating from something that the public comes to see me for,” she said.

Jeong said she was able to muster up the courage for “If/Then” because of her connection to the storyline. And even though it was another big production in a large theater, it was her chance to satiate her longstanding desire to try a piece with more drama.

No longer layers deep in cakey makeup and wrapped up in elaborate dresses, Jeong’s performance as an everyday character is certainly something that her regular audience isn’t used to seeing. But she pulls it off, coming across as an incredibly lovable and relatable version of Elizabeth in bootcut jeans and heels.

It is apparent, however, that the actor hasn’t completely shed all her big-stage acting tricks, with still plenty of her over-the-top tones and gestures frequently making the audience burst into laughter and her signature robust vocals sprinkled throughout the whole 165-minute show.

Jeong Sun-ah, right, lives two different lives in a parallel universe in the ongoing musical "If/Then" at Hongik Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul. [SHOWNOTE]

Jeong said that she was initially worried about what the audience's reaction would be to her in “If/Then.”

“I soon realized that I didn’t need to worry at all,” she said. She has been receiving touching responses night after night of the show commenting on her phenomenal performance.

“They weren’t the usual comments that I was used to getting, like ‘Jung Sun-ah’s high notes were incredible.’ Since doing ‘If/Then’ people have been sending me messages about how the show has given them hope and has consoled them. I’ve never received these types of responses, and I felt most happy reading them. This show is proving to be an incredible journey so far.”

Jeong described “If/Then” as the show that marks act two in her own career.

“It is my first show since being pregnant, and I think that I was able to prove to people that I could act in more story-centric pieces,” she said. “I want to continue singing and acting, just as I am now, for as long as possible.”

So what would she have done if she hadn’t gone to that “Rent” audition 19 years ago? Would she have taken on a different occupation?

“I was fated to do this,” she said. “Just as Elizabeth in ‘If/Then’ is fated to some things, no matter her different choices.

“Musical theater is my destiny. I really can’t imagine myself in anything else other than theater. I was born to do this.”

“If/Then” runs through Feb. 26 at Hongik Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul.