Éponine, Broadway and Spotlight Education with Christine Heesun Hwang

Christina Heesun Hwang

We sat down with Minnesota native Christine Heesun Hwang and to talk about being back on the historic Orpheum Theatre’s stage, her role in the touring production of Les Misérables and her experience as a Spotlight Education alum on the national Broadway scene.

So, we’re here to talk about you, Spotlight and Les Mis. Are you ready?

Yes, absolutely. Let’s do it.

You are a Minnetonka native, you were a Spotlight kid, you’ve performed on our stages before; How does it feel to be home for the holidays?

Oh, it’s nice because I get to be home for the holidays. I don’t get to be home for the holiday, but my family is coming in, so we’ll all get to spend some time together, that will be really nice and it’s nice being in a familiar place.

What was it like to be back on the Orpheum stage?

I got really emotional. I’m not normally a crier… well, that’s a lie, I’m a crybaby, but I was just thinking about all the times I’ve seen shows in the Orpheum and when I last performed in the Orpheum, when I was a freshman in high school. I was thinking about the very back, back row of the balcony, because that’s where I would normally sit. I thought “I was one of those people out there,” and- see, even now I’m tearing up. It was really awesome, because it was like I was singing to a younger me and I’m very grateful for that. It was a cool full circle moment.

A struggle I had during the rehearsal process was that I would cry during the song, and the director would be like “You have to sing the song, you can’t cry through the song,” so I really try not to cry until I finish the cutoff note of On My Own and then whatever comes out can come out. Yesterday the audience was- well, you felt it yesterday, it was incredible. The best part of theater is the audience, that interaction, and I felt like I was hopefully not only making Minnesota proud but making my younger self proud in that moment. It was pretty cool.

Speaking of your younger self, as a Triple Threat award winner here on Hennepin in your Spotlight days, what lessons and memories do you carry with you from these stages?

I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned is to make the most of every opportunity you’re given. Regardless of any award or anything I’ve won, every opportunity, every master class, every Q & A, take advantage of it. Even in my own school, I wasn’t always the lead, there was so much to learn from every opportunity if I had the mindset to learn, and I think that’s more fruitful if I go in thinking it was just another event, you know? It’s important to always go in with the student’s mindset, and I still have it. Like with Les Mis, every night I’m still thinking about all my choices and my relationships to people onstage, that’s the kind of stuff you have to actively think about in order to make an honest performance, right? So, to have an open mind, a student’s mindset and to make the most of every opportunity.

So, the road from Spotlight to touring with this Broadway production, what did that look like?

Oh gosh, well, I went to school, and I didn’t really love school, so I started auditioning for shows. I booked my first tour, Miss Saigon, and that was when I was a junior in college, I was 20, so I left school to do that for about six months, then COVID happened. Two and a half years later, I was like “I don’t know if I want to act, I don’t really know what I’m doing, it’s scary, blah blah blah,” obviously thinking about things that were far more important to me than my career; my family and my friends, making sure everyone was healthy and safe, and with everything that was going on, it was important to take time to reflect on all that happened. I started auditioning again last winter, and, maybe this is the Minnesotan in me, but I don’t have an agent or anything, so I do everything on my own mostly (on my own, get it?), and when I started auditioning in December, I got a callbacks in New York for other stuff in January and then [Les Mis] happened at the end of March, two weeks later I got the call. It was a very clean-cut audition process, because, to keep in mind, I was very lucky I had been with this production group before, so it was nice since there were familiar faces running it. But it was a pretty clean process, two weeks and now I’m on the road.

But I think metaphorically speaking, if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s been a lot of failing, picking myself back up again and recognizing my failures are what make me better. I think failure is even a harsh word to put out there, but not being afraid of failure. Every step backward was actually a step forward, so long as I believed it was a step forward. I mean, in this industry, you have to have a tenacity and resilience, because you’re going to get 500 noes before you get a yes. I would say before Miss Saigon, I was auditioning for a year and a half, think I had done probably 300 auditions, and there were a lot of close calls, like close calls, and to hear no after you get that close, you have to have that kind of resilience to be able to say “No, there is an opportunity waiting for me, I just have to keep moving forward and keep learning, and take this opportunity and start. Right before I booked this show actually, I was maybe a hair away from making my Broadway debut, and I was like “This is it, I’m doing it, I made it,” and then I got a no, but then a day later they asked me to come in for Les Mis and I was like “Wait, but I just got rejected from Broadway, what?” but what a blessing it turned out to be. Now I’m here, and I get to play this role. It’s a dream come true.

Absolutely. I think we talked about it earlier, on opening night last night, you were amazing, the cast was phenomenal and the performance got a standing ovation

Oh, really? I didn’t notice because I was just crying into my hand. I couldn’t look up I was, I was just crying.

The whole show was incredible. Do you have any favorite numbers or moments from the show?

I always say I want to be a tenor. I’m mad I’m not a tenor. But both the soliloquies are great, and Nick Cartell (Jean Valjean) is a freak of nature, he is so talented. What he does and the fact that he can do it that many times a week, and he’s so sincere and earnest, all of them are, but he’s amazing. Then Stars from Hayden Tee, Hayden is so wonderful as Javert. So, Valjean’s soliloquy, Stars, and I also love Convalescence, the last Cosette song, when she’s in that purple dress and she’s singing something that’s like “Hey, with every step you get better,” and of course Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, oof! Gregory Lee Rodriguez is just… he’s so insane. He gives the performance of a lifetime and then he goes offstage and he’s all relaxed, he’s insane I could not.

I cannot imagine getting up on stage, every night, night after night, and then doing a three-hour performance.

Oh, I’m spoiled. I got the princess track. My most important point is the first 15 minutes of act two, after that, shower. Eat my dinner. I literally have 45 minutes until I have to go back on stage, waiting patiently. Hailey Dortch, who plays Fantine, she at least has to go to the barricade, so she’s at the barricade for the rest of the time, and I’m like twiddling my thumbs or whatever, I get a break. If I complained about my timing people would tell me to shut up. I have a pretty easy going at it.

So one last question: for all the Spotlight kids out there, what is your advice to them as they’re getting ready for next year’s Spotlight Showcase?

Remember why you’re doing it. Because if you nourish your love and passion for theater, you can never go wrong, ultimately that’s what we’re in this for. You know what I mean? It’s not for the notoriety, or for the awards, it’s because you love to sing, dance, do whatever you do in theater because it makes you feel a certain way, it’s magical and nothing else can make you feel that way. If you nourish that love and your passion, that’s what is going to allow you to do your best work and enjoy your time, and, if you choose to pursue theater, it will help you center yourself in the journey ahead.