The New Musical Offering A Piercing Look Into K-Pop
As a genre, K-pop – the South Korean export known for varied musical styles, high-concept performances, and chart-dominating groups – has stormed nearly every corner of the world, but now it’s poised to bow on an entirely new stage.
Earlier this month, the Broadway musical KPOP arrived at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre, giving attendees a piercing new look inside the musical phenomenon – with an actual K-pop star in the leading role.
When KPOP was last performed in New York in 2017, it took the form of an immersive Off-Broadway experience. It also probed the question: why hadn’t K-pop yet crossed over to the US? At the time, BTS was just beginning its American breakthrough. Now, in 2022, that crossover has happened – and then some – meaning the musical’s focus has not only evolved to fit its new venue (audience members will stay seated this time around) but also the moment it’s arriving in, to say nothing of the fanbase that will greet it.
“Now [it’s] really exploring the specific, emotional journey a K-pop star has to go through,” explains composer Helen Park, who co-wrote the show’s music.
KPOP takes place during a one-night-only concert taping, during which a fictional star – played by Luna, who began her career as part of the pioneering K-pop girl group f(x) – walks off stage. Co-creator Jason Kim says he wanted to create a musical in the style of backstage, behind-the-curtain stories such as Gypsy. That dissection of identity and ambition is at KPOP’s core, but the musical also delivers the joy and energy of its concert framing, with the show’s boy band, girl group and Luna’s character all getting moments to shine.
Park wanted the music for the show to truly honour K-pop, which meant a lot of research into what makes the genre tick, with lyrics in both Korean and English. But while the musical deals with those universal, human emotions, it also contends with the unique rigours of K-pop stardom, such as the intensive training and pressures put on the genre’s performers. “There’s no way that we could represent all of the industry – the best thing we could do was to tell as specific a story as possible,” Kim explains. “Our goal isn’t to really expose the industry, but to track the psychology of a world-class performer going through this giant system.”
As a K-pop star herself, Kim says of Luna, “she almost doesn’t have to embody anything because she is that person. It lends a level of truth to the performance that is astounding to see.”
“At a time when K-pop is beloved around the world, it’s such an honour to be in New York on Broadway as a K-pop artist and musical actor,” adds Luna. “Working on this musical has opened up so many possibilities for me in terms of how I want to develop and grow as a K-pop singer.”
The “exuberant and celebratory show,” as Kim describes it, also marks an important and exciting step towards more representation of Asian stories and storytellers on Broadway. “We’re changing what Broadway looks like,” Park notes, adding, “we’re really trying to build something that hasn’t existed before, and that takes a lot of work and attention to this genre of K-pop, but also how a Broadway story is told.”
Kim thinks of a young Asian girl he saw watching in awe on the closing night of their Off-Broadway production five years ago: “The show is really for everybody, but especially for somebody like her. She’s who I’m thinking of. She’s my North Star.”
Jessica Derschowitz is an entertainment editor and writer based in New York whose work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, Variety, Bustle and more