Musical actress Park Ji-yeon grew up listening to music, always wearing her earphones. As a teen, her first crush was a guitarist in a school rock band. Her favorite singer? Michael Bolton.
"When my teacher told me to study at the back of the classroom, I would listen to Michael Bolton instead," Park said in an interview with The Korea Herald. "And I remember breaking down in tears after listening to his song, 'How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.' I was 18 at the time, and the lyrics just got to me. It was always music that made me laugh and cry. I learned how to live through music."
And music continues to dominate her life. The 25-year-old, who is currently starring as Molly in the on-going show "Ghost the Musical," is one of the most successful emerging actresses in the local performing arts scene.
The former rock 'n' roll lover who "had never watched a musical before turning 20," landed her first musical role ― Sophie in "Mamma Mia!" ― through an open audition back in 2010 with a blank resume. She then secured the role of Eponine in last year's Seoul run of Cameron Mackintosh's "Les Miserables."
Yoon Eun-ji of the Seensee Company, the local producer of "Mamma Mia!" and "Ghost the Musical," remembers a particular moment in one of the audition sessions for "Mamma Mia!" in 2010, when Park was asked to somehow "seduce" one of the judges on the spot. Most of the other contestants danced with sexy movements, but Park surprised the judges by doing something they did not expect.
"She calmly walked up to one of the judges and whispered something in his ear. He did not expect that at all, and was really impressed by the idea. I think she stands out among the actresses her age, because she has this innate quality that makes her effortlessly original."
Park said she considers herself a "very lucky person," and she was a beneficiary of the particular audition system for "Mamma Mia!"
"I was lucky because everyone who tried out, regardless of their previous experience, was given a chance to sing in front of the judges," Park, who nabbed two Best Emerging Actress awards last year, said.
"So the audition system really opened doors for me. I don't think I would've made it to the audition stage if it was mandatory for contestants to have experience on stage."
Though Park has always loved music, she never thought of doing it as a career when she was a teenager. She in fact dreamed of being a science teacher while growing up, and was admitted to an engineering school upon graduating high school. She dropped out during her first semester and enrolled in Seoul Institute of the Arts' theater school the following year. It was her colleague at the arts school that suggested Park audition for the role in "Mamma Mia!" after watching her sing in one of the classes.
"I never really thought of being a musical actress, it sort of all just happened and (the opportunities) came to me," Park said. "But as I got into it, I became more ambitious. There were a total of four sessions in the auditions for 'Mamma Mia!' and after making it to the final round, I found myself really wanting the role. And I came to really like musicals, and because I like it, I want to be better at it."
In her current show, which is a musical adaptation of the 1990 hit romance movie "Ghost," Park is playing Molly, the grieving girlfriend whose murdered lover becomes a ghost. She shares her role with popular singer Ivy, and co-stars with some of the most prominent stars in the country, including TV actor Joo Won and veteran musical actress Choi Jung-won.
"I was really lucky to start my musical with 'Mamma Mia!' because I got to work with Choi Jung-won, who played Donna, Sophie's mom," Park said.
"She is so optimistic, enthusiastic and inspiring. She's also a lot of fun to be with. She never really tries to teach me things, but I just learn by looking at her and working with her. While we were doing 'Mamma Mia!' she had a sore throat one time. And she said the condition was the worst in 10 years. But not only did she just pull it off on stage, she gave the best performance ever that night. I learned so much from watching that show."
After having a very successful year in 2013, Park said that for now she wants to do a good job with the current run of "Ghost the Musical," which continues until June. Off stage, she enjoys listening to music and mastering guitar, while studying chemistry. She is also interested in learning pottery and hopes to travel after finishing "Ghost the Musical."
"I just want to focus on what's happening now and prepare myself for opportunities that may or may not come to me," she said.
And music still is one of her biggest sources of inspiration.
"For me, music is what allows me to reflect and appreciate my past and get inspiration for the future," she said. "I am most thrilled when I am on stage performing while looking into the eyes of the audience. I love it when I feel as if I and the audience are thinking about the same thing while sharing the same moment."