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[Herald Interview] Born to perform: For Choi Jung-won, musical theater is not a job, but a calling

53-year-old musical performer makes history with more than 1,000 performances as Donna in 'Mamma Mia!'

May 8, 2023 - 14:35 By Park Ga-young
Choi Jung-won poses for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald on April 26. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Musical actress Choi Jung-won made her debut as Donna in "Mamma Mia!" on Jan. 18, 2007 -- the beginning of a remarkable journey that is 16 years in the running, encompassing more than 1,033 performances. Choi holds the record for the longest stint as Donna and has the second highest number of total performances in the role.

Nowadays, the 53-year-old proudly identifies herself as "Choi Jung-won, born to play Donna," a statement that few would challenge. However, it wasn't until this year that she felt the full significance of the role. Her daughter is now the same age as Donna's daughter, Sophie, bringing the character's story even closer to her heart.

"Performing in 'Mamma Mia!' becomes more comfortable with time, like wearing a perfectly fitting piece of clothing. I don't feel tired and could perform five times a day," she told reporters during an interview on April 26. “It’s just positive -- no one dies, everyone connects in love. It makes the audience happy regardless of their age,” she added.

Choi's record with Mamma Mia! is noteworthy, but it's not her only achievement. In fact, she has also been performing the musical "Chicago" for 22 years, a feat that surpasses her impressive tenure as Donna.

Choi Jung-won performs as Velma Kelly in "Chicago" on April 6, 2021, at the D-cube Arts Center in Seoul. (Seensee Co.)

In fact, Choi’s career is almost synonymous with South Korea’s musical industry.

Choi's introduction to the world of musical theater was watching the musical movie "Singin' in the Rain" in high school. The musical was a genre that was not common in Korea back then. However, her interest was piqued and in 1989 she made her debut in the musical "Guys and Dolls" as the sixth doll. Her breakthrough role came in the 1995 production of "Singin' in the Rain" and, over the span of 30 years, she went on to appear in more than 30 musical productions, including popular titles such as "Rent," "West Side Story," "Grease," "42nd St.," "Frida," "Billy Elliot" and "Matilda." Choi only took a break from the stage when she was pregnant with her daughter, whose water birth was televised in 1999 -- the only year Choi had no stage credits.

In 2000, she returned to the stage for three Korean premieres -- in "Rent" as Mimi, "They're Playing Our Song" as Sonya and in "Chicago" as Roxie Heart.

For Choi, acting is not just a job, but a calling. She first discovered the power of reducing her mother to both laughter and tears at the young age of six. Throughout her school years, she continued to captivate her classmates with her performances, finding happiness in the art of acting.

As she puts it, "People say when you discover what you love, you never work. That’s the case for me.”

Choi Jung-won poses for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald on April 26. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)