With her ice blond hair, kaleidoscopic costumes and melismatic high notes, the South Korean solo artist MwE (pronounced mu-WEE) looks the part of a bona fide K-pop idol, the model of a hyper-visible cipher. Fellow girl group RTMIS (pronounced Artemis) boasts similarly convincing stage confidence, while boy band F8 (pronounced Fate) approaches the delivery of English and Korean lyrics and kinetic choreography with enough militaristic precision to draw whoops from a crowd of about 600 at New York’s Circle in the Square theater on a recent Wednesday.
The trio are, on one level, the stable of acts meant to introduce a Korean pop label to American audiences in a one-night only concert debut. They are also, in one of many meta moments, the fictional backbone of KPOP, a new musical introducing the chart-dominating genre to Broadway. The eardrum-shaking show, which opened last week after a long pandemic delay, straddles the line between Technicolor bilingual concert and musical theater, blurring Broadway conventions with arena pop adrenaline; four of the 18 cast members, including Luna as MwE, double as real-life K-pop idols.
A lot has changed since composer Helen Park began work on the musical eight years ago, or even since its predecessor’s buzzy off-Broadway debut at Ars Nova in 2017. Park, who grew up between South Korea, the American midwest and Canada listening to K-pop as “comfort food”, started crafting a K-pop musical around 2014, just after Psy’s Gangnam Style became a viral sensation and many westerners’ first hook into Korean music. Along with composer Max Vernon and book writer Jason Kim (both of whom returned for the Broadway debut along with director Teddy Bergman), Park sought to demonstrate to musical theater audiences that “there’s more to K-pop than just Gangnam Style”, she said.
“This was the first time that K-pop is represented in theater, and I was happy that Gangnam Style got a lot of popularity here,” she said, “but I was also a little bit weirded out that people were reducing K-pop to like one or two things”. There were other genres – ballads, group music, micro-genres within pop. There was the ability to transcend language barriers to communicate overwhelming feelings, a quality K-pop shared with musical theater – “the reason why I love K-pop is similar to why I fell in love with musical theater,” said Park. “It’s very heightened emotions, it’s very transparent with the emotions.”
Park’s goal, back in 2014, was to “break the stereotypes and show K-pop as it is to me, and share that with the American audience”. That hasn’t wavered, she said, “but I do think that the society changed”. When she mentioned her Korean heritage to Americans in 2014, many people would respond by asking about North Korea. This was before BTS became the biggest band in the world, before the crossover success of megawatt girl group Blackpink, before Parasite’s Oscar win and the popularity of K-dramas such as Squid Game, Crash Landing on You and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay brought Korean content into the English-language mainstream.
The global hallyu – the Korean wave of cultural products from music to movies, food to skincare – changed the context for a standard New York theater audience, as well as an American cultural reckoning over diversity on stage and authenticity of storytelling. Broadway has historically not been fair nor welcome to representations of Asian Americans – Park is the first Asian American female composer of a Broadway show, and KPOP the rare production featuring a majority Asian American cast and crew.
The result is a show which weaves in and out of languages, with some lyrics and dramatic lines in Korean (the show’s Playbill is also the first to be bilingual.) “The magic of K-pop music, I think, is in how it transcends language and cultural differences,” said Park. “There’s this power of music and dance and performance that just transcends the language barrier, and I wanted to recreate that.” Finding the right balance for an American theater audience was at first intimidating, “because I’m so used to people making judgments on, you know, the way that I speak English, or the fact that I’m bilingual”, she said. “But I really firmly believe in trying to go for the most authentic while still being conscious of the audience and making sure that they’re taken care of.”
KPOP, which has pulled in both K-pop fans and Broadway regulars, demonstrates that “language doesn’t have to be a barrier”, said Kevin Woo, a former K-pop idol (of the band U-KISS) who plays a member of F8, Jun Hyuk. The show touches on themes familiar to anyone who has watched a show or movie on a rising star – sacrifice, loneliness, the relentless pressure of fame, artistic triumph – all filtered through the lens of South Korea’s notoriously rigorous K-pop training schools.
The framing device of a documentary camera helmed by prying white guy Harry (Aubie Merrylees) exposes cracks in the foundation of each act: RTMIS struggles with feelings of futility within the star machine; F8 faces internal divisions following the introduction of biracial American singer Brad (Zachary Noah Piser) to bolster their stateside debut (Brad, besides being the new guy, does not speak fluent Korean.) And MwE, the wizened veteran of group, bristles against the strictures of pop idol life that feels, as she sings in one number, like being a “wind-up doll”; flashbacks reveal a decade-plus of relentless training after she was taken in by label head Ruby (Jully Lee). There’s no time for her normie boyfriend, no time for a personal life, even as Ruby chastises her for not singing enough from the heart.
A Korean American artist who went through K-pop’s idol training, Woo brings an extra layer of experience to F8, one of several real-life stars to inform the show’s depiction of K-pop stardom. “Of course, we have to pack it into a two-hour musical, so it’s going to be impossible to really portray the extreme measures we went through,” he said, “but I can say in that short amount of time, it’s pretty close”.
“I think that this show is the perfect gateway to K-pop and Korean culture,” he said. “It really takes the audience on a ride of how we’ve trained and the intensity.”
The show itself has been on a long journey to its final Broadway iteration. The original 2017 off-Broadway production was an interactive experience, bringing an audience of “focus group” American viewers into various rooms glimpsing the pressures behind such upbeat records. No Broadway stage could accommodate such an immersive experience, and the show has thus been significantly retooled – a stage featuring a retractable tongue allowing viewers to be mere feet from the idols, many new songs to reflect shifting trends in K-pop music so it “doesn’t feel like early 2000s”, said Park. She aimed for tune over vibe and timeless melodies, which is “the common ground between Broadway tunes and a good pop song”.
One consistency, she said, is the deep appreciation for an ever-mutating and expanding cultural movement that could shape Broadway in its image. The ultimate hook of the show is the “the joy and the energy that this amazing cast provide”, said Park. “I really hope that the audience can feel our love for K-pop.”