As the fan base started to grow, though by a little, Taehwa was determined to stay and persevere in Japan. Then came a point in time where he couldn’t postpone the military service any longer. Just a year after his career began in Japan, Taehwa joined the army as a conscripted policeman conducting PR duties. In the early days, he could concentrate on preparing for the performances the PR team would put together, without worrying about the ‘outside world’. As the date of discharge from the military approached however, anxiety about the next career steps began to creep back. As Taehwa was getting ready to go back to Japan, Kim Junsu(Xia Junsu) who had known him through the soccer team suggested he should give it a go at performing in musical theater. Junsu had sorry feelings for Taehwa, who entered the entertainment industry later than him, as he had to resume his singing career from scratch in a foreign country.
“Back in the days when I was an idol, the most important thing was for the lead vocalist to have distinctive features that could represent the group. So anyone listening to a song could instantly recognize whether it’s by ‘BigBang’ or ‘2NE1’, but that wasn’t the case for us, which was very stressful. I often heard comments like ‘you have a nice tone, but your voice is not unique enough’, ’find your own color’. Then one day Junsu told me ‘that can be a major handicap as a singer, but in musical theater a voice like yours could open up so many opportunities’. The fact that my voice doesn’t stand out, he said, means I could play more diverse roles….”
In 2015 Taehwa went to his very first audition for the musical, ‘Dracula’ held in a grand theater. He recorded the musical numbers he practiced then sent them to Junsu, so that he could ‘evaluate’ then fill in any gaps. One day, while he was totally occupied with the upcoming audition, Taehwa broke his leg during a workout. He had no choice but to go to the audition on crutches with a cast. The head of the production company who saw him recognized ‘his passion’. Like that, he was able to get a supporting role in his first ever musical.
When the first musical was over however, Taehwa turned to seek opportunities at small-scale theaters in Daehak-ro(a popular district for theater performances).
“People said to me with envy, ‘Wow, you made the debut in a mega musical”, but I could feel the void inside me. When you are performing in a musical, you’re compelled to attract the audience who pay like $100 per ticket and make them feel it’s worth it. That’s why I wanted to perform in small theaters to learn the sophisticated art of acting and grow from there.”
However, the opportunity to perform in a small theater didn’t come easy. Taehwa kept being pushed back behind actors who have built a long and solid presence in Daehak-ro.
“I think that’s when I hit rock bottom in life. Every audition I went to, I didn’t make it. For a whole six months. For most musicals that people have heard of, I’ve failed at least once to get a part. Then, I was lucky enough to play a part in ‘Me and Natasha and the White Donkey’, although I had failed the audition itself.”
Once he had opened the doors to small theater performances, the second and third time became a little bit easier. As he persevered through many musicals big and small, fans gradually began to acknowledge him as a proper musical actor.
Last August, Taehwa ended the contract with his entertainment company. To his mind, building a solid career in small productions did not require much assistance from a company. Then, there was news that the audition for a world famous musical ‘Wicked’ was coming up.
Taehwa auditioned for the lead male role ‘Fiyero’. Most auditions last 10 minutes at the longest, but it lasted almost 30 minutes for Taehwa. Though he didn’t have high hopes to get it, he later received a text saying he ‘got the role’. Another actor who was double cast(casting two actors for the same role) was Seo Kyungsoo, whose career as a musical actor spanned more than 10 years than that of Taehwa.
The short lifespan of an idol doesn’t solely apply to those that did not achieve success. Even if a group rises to stardom, passing the 7-year mark is rare at best. The Fair Trade Commission in Korea limits the exclusive contract period for idols to seven years; which is why most entertainment companies enter into a seven-year contract with individual idol members to begin with. By the time the contract expires, they are no longer young enough to present themselves as ‘idols’. For boy groups in particular, there are only so many times one can postpone the mandatory military service.
“After about three years since we debuted, I always had this kind of anxiety in the back of my mind. I thought to myself, ‘the team obviously can’t go on forever, but I don’t want to be separated from the members’. When separation became a reality, I was devastated, even though it wasn’t like I was never going to see them again.”(Sandara Park, in an interview after disbandment of 2NE1 in April 2017)
When the time comes to renew the contract, complicated dynamics emerge between the entertainment company and the idol group, not to mention within the group itself. If the group has risen to stardom already, the group has the ‘upper hand’ to sway the contract renewal. At times negotiations fall apart because the share of the profit allocated to the entertainment company tends to be far less under the renewed contract.
Even within successful idol groups, members who are relatively more popular as opposed to others often have different needs. Those who wish to start a new chapter of their career in acting for instance, may no longer wish to continue the idol life, where every member has to be onboard for busy promotions for the group and all the profits are evenly distributed.