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September 27, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Junah Jang acts and sings because it makes her feel free. The 10-year-old Columbia-born actress says there are no rules on stage; you can do whatever feels natural.
What comes naturally to Junah seems to be success. After nearly a year of auditions and callbacks, she landed a role in Broadway’s revival of Annie. Junah competed with 5,000 kids coast to coast for a part in the Tony Award-winning musical. She will play Tessie, one of Annie’s orphan sidekicks, in the show’s open-ended run. Preview performances begin Oct. 3 before the Nov. 8 opening night.
Junah, her mother, Hana Park, and her younger brother, Minoo, relocated to New York City to accommodate the rehearsal and show schedule. “Everything is awake and alive,” Junah says. “You’re never bored.” Neither the constant energy of the city nor the hours of rehearsals can exhaust Junah’s enthusiasm. “Working so hard makes me more energetic,” she says. “I just have so much fun at the rehearsals.” A typical rehearsal schedule for Junah runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. five or six days a week.
Although she’s new to Broadway, Junah is no rookie. She’s participated in Columbia’s PACE Youth Theatre Company and TRYPS Children’s Theatre since age 4. She appeared in Annie Jr., Suessical Jr. and James and the Giant Peach, among other shows.
Junah has always had a passion for theater. “She really loved singing the moment she started talking,” says her mother. Junah’s enthusiasm and talent made lasting impressions on everyone she worked with in Columbia’s theater circuit. “She has a great presence on stage,” says actor Bob Bohon, who directed Junah in Suessical. “When she was on stage, you could not help but watch her.”
After seeing Junah perform, Bohon suggested the open-call auditions for Annie to her mother. Park, who had never thought about taking Junah’s acting beyond the local level, was flattered but didn’t take the offer too seriously. Then, her husband found an audition for the show in Omaha. After two or three sleepless nights of thinking about the casting call, the family decided to take a chance and let Junah try out for a part.
It was her first time auditioning in front of Broadway producers, but Junah says she was just nervous enough. “You have to be a little bit nervous to be really good,” she says. “If you’re overconfident, it doesn’t turn out so well.”
Months later when Junah got a call back for an audition in New York, she and a team of teachers and coaches worked to hone her singing, dancing and acting skills for the next string of tryouts.
“I had full confidence in her,” says Jazz Rucker, the choral director at Lange Middle School who helped Junah with vocals. “When a little girl no higher than your waistline walks in and has a voice as big as she does, that’s just amazing.” Junah’s voice is so strong that the windows at TRYPS vibrated when she sang, says Jill Womack, executive artistic director.
After 10 months of auditions and waiting, Park was at work when she got a phone call with the good news. That night, she and her husband asked Junah to play piano while they videotaped for her grandparents to watch. Junah still remembers them whispering. When she hit the last note, her parents said, “Junah, you’re going to be Tessie.”
Weeks later, Junah still remembers the strange mix of emotions she felt — confusion, shock, happiness and disbelief. But after working with the cast, she only feels excitement when she thinks about the curtain rising on opening night.
Junah isn’t sure about making acting her career. “If I can’t be an actress, I would like to be an editor or a robot programmer,” she says. For now, Junah wants to be on stage, and others believe that’s where she’ll stay.
“This is just the start,” Rucker says. “I think once Broadway gets a taste of that awesome little girl, they’re going to keep her in New York for quite some time.”