Out performer Christine Heesun Hwang "dreamed a dream" of joining the cast one of Les Miserablesnow showing at the Cadillac Palace Theaterand now she's made that dream into a reality.
Set in 19th-century France, Les Miserables is based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. The story follows Jean Valjean, a peasant who struggles for redemption after being released from 19 years in jail for stealing bread. He joins a group of revolutionaries who attempt to overthrow the government in Paris. Heesun Hwang plays Eponine Thenardier, an impoverished street waif and thief.
From working in the background of HBO Max's Gossip Girl reboot to creating her own musical, this talented Korean-American performer shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. During premiere week in the Windy City, Heesun Hwang took time out to talk about her previous life with Miss Saigon, the current tour with Les Miz and what the future holds for this bright, young star.
Windy City Times: Where are you from?
Christine Heesun Hwang: I am from the Midwest and Iowa. I started doing theater in Minnesota during my high school years, but now I am based out of Seattle and New York, so kind of all over the place.
WCT: Were you more of a writer or a performer growing up?
CHH: My parents had me taking violin and piano lessons at a young age, as many Korean parents do. I fell into the world of theater by pure chance in high school. I was able to get into college by auditioning. It all accelerated while I was in New York and was a happy accident.
I was a very shy kid and never intended on being a performer in any capacity. I wanted to be a writer and a journalist, but theater came and took my heart away.
WCT: Did you have a big queer coming party for your career?
CHH: Oh, hell no. People knew I was gay. My dad knew I was gay the minute I started talking! [laughs]
Everyone knew I was except for me. I came out when I was 16 years old, and it was around the time that gay marriage was legalized. I told everyone that I was bi, but now I say queer because it is more of an umbrella term because I don't want to get into specifics.
I am very open-minded and honest about everything, not just my sexuality, although it is a big part of who I am.
WCT: Talk about being on Gossip Girl.
CHH: Television is hard and the experience made me love theater even more. I did it because it was a job for a year and it paid well. We were human shields from COVID for the principal actors. The food was great and I made good memories while being on the set. Being PCR tested every day for a year was not fun!
WCT: How was the past experience of touring with Miss Saigon?
CHH: That was my first big job. I was baptized in a fire with that one, because there was so much physical…toil. It was my first time joining in as a replacement. There were fast-moving parts all of a sudden. I dropped out of school to go on tour with a bunch of new people in an environment that I wasn't used to.
At that point, I hadn't been in a musical since high school, so it was jumping into being on stage again in a beast of a role. I learned a lot, and it is why I enjoy this tour more. I also love this production more because I am not onstage for three hours. With this one, it is about 45 minutes and then I am done!
WCT: Talk about your character Eponine.
CHH: She is very street-smart and scrappy. She's more than a girl who has a crush on a boy. She is trying to escape the life she has been living in. Marriage is what she dreams of and having a stable life is what she is looking for. She is willing to risk everything to get a glimpse of that. I think that is admirable and she endures a lot for the people she is loyal to.
WCT: How is this Les Miserables different than past versions?
CHH: This is a diverse group in every sense. We come from varying backgrounds and that brings authenticity to the show. This gives a fresh feel to a timely story that has lasted many years.
The core themes are love and perseverance. Combining what the world has been through in the past few years and this group of fresh-faced individuals telling this story has added another layer of depth and nuance. This is a brand-new production in that sense.
It has been exciting to hear people's reception of it. The cast and crew are committed to telling the truth of this story. There is a lot of responsibility with that.
WCT: Did you watch the Les Mis songs on Glee or had you seen the show previously?
CHH: The first time I saw Les Mis was in middle school in the theater. The 10th-anniversary concert with Lea Salonga was pressed into my brain of course. I really treasure the score and lyrics because of the source material and the commitment from the creatives.
WCT: The songs within Les Miserables have a huge range. How do you performers take care of their voices with these challenges?
CHH: That makes me think of the Company documentary where Elaine Stritch talks about screaming and there are moments where I am doing just that.
A large part of it is learning how to be on the road and keeping healthymentally, physically and emotionally. Drinking water may sound basic, but it is important. It may mean getting more sleep or exercise, especially during the halfway mark of the tour. Everyone is trying to find their rhythm and balance of all of that because it is a vocally demanding show.
We have amazing swings and understudies that allow us to rest. They make the show even better when they bring their own unique qualities to it.
WCT: I love a good Elaine Stritch reference!
CHH: Of course, you have to pay homage to someone like that who comes before you.
WCT: What future projects are you working on?
CHH: I am a writer and working on a musical called Renewal with Adam Rothenberg and Yes Theatre. It is about what happens in the face of an extreme natural disaster. We pulled ideas from the fires that have been happening over the past few years. It is a passion project for me.
There is also another play in development that I have been writing called Confirm Me. I am diving into this other side of myself that I can't access as a performer.
Les Miserables plays at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street through March 5, 2023. Look for full-price tickets or play the discounted digital lottery at BroadwayInChicago.com .