Any Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) performing artist will tell you that there aren’t many roles for us, especially in the musical theater industry. We are called in for the same three roles and it’s exhausting. So — like most marginalized groups — we are forced to carve out our own spaces.
Enter KPOP, running now at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre.
KPOP is Asian excellence at its peak — top notch singing, style, and perfectly rehearsed dance moves. It’s not-quite a concert, not-quite a musical, and I came away from it with more questions than answers. But I suppose that’s what art should do, make us question and feel - right?
I had the pleasure of seeing KPOP in 2017, and knew going in that the immersive nature of the beloved Ars Nova version would be nearly impossible to recreate on a Broadway stage. The creative team of this new production had the Herculean task of merging two distinct forms — K-pop and musical theater — to tell the story of what Korean pop stars (called “idols”) sacrifice in order to achieve their dream of an NYC debut.
I brought along a new Korean American friend, Hyeseung, as my companion for the evening. On the train uptown we discussed feeling conflicted about the recent surge in consumption of Korean culture known as the K-wave, or Hallyu. Hyeseung and I grew up during a time when most Americans couldn’t point out Korea on a map, let alone embrace fermented foods. Japan had a trendy moment in the late 90s/early 2000s with the popularity of Pokémon, manga, anime, and the Harajuki girls’ style (thanks, Gwen Stefani). Now, it seems to be Korea’s turn. In 2021 Netflix invested $500 million in Korean shows alone. Lisa from Blackpink’s ‘Money’ outsold Drake, Future, Young Thug, Lil Nas X, and Jack Harlow in 2021. Skin care influencers push K-beauty products now available at your local Sephora. And if you don’t know who BTS are, you must live under a rock.
My experience with K-pop is similar to that of most average Americans: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012, BTS’s “Boy with Luv” in 2019, and the girl group Blackpink debuting in the U.S. at Coachella in 2019. In fact, I saw Blackpink in Newark three nights before seeing KPOP. K-pop emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, blending Western musical influences such as rock, R&B, jazz, and hip hop with contemporary Korean music. A newly democratic country desperate to compete on the global capitalist stage, South Korea saw the value in cultural exports and soft power. They took this blend of American musical styles and made it into something (and a business) that is distinctly Korean. Today, the K-pop industry brings in roughly 10 billion dollars to South Korea’s economy every year.
I grew up in rural Maine which beat out Vermont as the whitest state in the United States according to the 2020 Census. There were no other Korean families (or many Asians) in my hometown. Assimilation was the silent goal, even if I didn’t fully understand what it meant until I became an adult. Assimilate into the dominant culture, aka white American culture.
Watching KPOP as a mixed Korean American, it will come as no surprise that I gravitated towards the narrative of Brad, the mixed Korean American member of the show’s fictional male idol group F8, played by actor Zachary Noah Piser. Brad’s Korean isn’t as sharp as other members of the group, and they see him as an outsider. Navigating the space between two worlds is a distinctly mixed experience. I have also heard similar sentiments echoed among Korean adoptees raised in white American households and communities. Struggling to be accepted — not Asian enough, not American (white) enough for any one space. Brad’s story is important. But I craved the same level of backstory from the other members of the idol groups, and Brad was the only character who got his own number (besides MwE).
KPOP follows the narratives of solo female idol MwE (played beautifully by South Korean K-pop star Luna), eight-member male group F8, and five-member female group RTMIS. As the idols rehearse for their NYC debut, a white American director and his camera operator attempt to document the process, interrupted by flashbacks of the solo idol MwE’s troubled past. The framing device of filming a behind-the-music style documentary ahead of the idols’ big night is unfortunately halfway executed - though I did appreciate the nod to K-drama in some of the dressing room scenes. The SINGLES INFERNO fan in me wanted more. What brought these talented young performers together? What are their struggles, the internal dynamics? Do they have crushes on each other? Do they hate this and want to quit? The director continues filming without their permission, intent on capturing raw footage in order to “humanize” them. When he tells them “you people” make everything so dramatic, it’s all the more satisfying when they tell him to fuck off in Act 2. Most of the dialogue between F8 and RTMIS in Act 2 could have served us better as character introductions in Act 1. Additionally, the stakes of the NYC debut need to be much higher and more clearly presented - as if their whole careers hinge on this one crucial concert.
The show’s choreographic formations have been adjusted to accommodate a thrust stage, making it feel like a pop concert. But as with a lot of pop choreography, it left me wanting something else besides decorative gestures for the female performers - I always want the female K-pop moves to be as grounded and hard-hitting as their male counterparts are allowed to be.
By the end of Act 2, the idols’ hard work pays off in “Blast Off,” their celebratory NYC debut. As catchy as the song is, I kept fantasizing alternate endings - the idols rebelling against the grueling K-pop machine that made them, striking out on their own, releasing that solo album. Another thought kept gnawing at me: what would it have been like to create this show more collaboratively - to truly showcase their talents as artists in their own right? I know, I know - “that’s not how it’s done!” But I know firsthand how much performers and associates contribute, from pre-production, throughout the creative processes, to the end product - but often don’t receive due credit for it.
**A quick note on accessibility:
I love how much more Korean is spoken and sung inside this version of KPOP. I appreciated the subtle ‘fuck you if you don’t understand’ (intentional or not) - it’s a lot like listening to my relatives speak in Korean mixed with English phrases, trying hard to keep up, understanding thru tone and inflection the gist of what exchanged. However there’s an unfair assumption that all Koreans in the audience will understand everything. My Korean is preschool level at best, so I could manage a few words and phrases, but I did secretly want some help. I remembered seeing Daniel K. Issac’s brilliant ONCE UPON A KOREAN TIME, and appreciating the subtitles inside the video design. Someone later pointed out it was because I had attended accessibility night. With shows such as these where video design is integral, would subtitles have been all that bad? Maybe I’ll have to go again on accessibility night. **
I must pause and mention the incredible work of the KPOP swings - one of whom flawlessly performed a lead role that night, Marina Kondo. Swings and understudies are the lifeblood of any show and COVID taught us how gravely irresponsible it is to produce a show without them!
One of the most moving moments in KPOP came at the end of the show, featuring a montage of home video clips showing the performers themselves as children - dancing in recitals, singing at home with small microphones for an invisible audience - showing how far they’ve come to achieve their dreams. The years of sacrifice, holidays away from family, thousands of hours of training, putting yourself out there in the hopes of ‘making it.’
And in the end, have we made it? Is this Asian excellence enough to prove we can play a leading role? To prove we can be the love interest and not just a quirky sidekick, nerdy friend, or doctor? I cannot shake Quentin Tarantino’s sickly obsession with Bruce Lee in his KILL BILL films, only to desecrate Lee’s image in ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD. In 2019 I sat in a movie theater in horror while audience members laughed out loud as Brad Pitt beat up Mike Moh, an accomplished martial arts actor playing a wildly overblown, hot-headed version of Lee. If the most iconic martial arts figure of our time can be reduced to a punching bag for laughs, then how far have we actually come?
Were it not for the worldwide success of groups like BTS and Blackpink, SQUID GAME on Netflix, and the Oscar-winning PARASITE over the last 5-10 years, would KPOP be where it is today? Let me rephrase that: if it weren’t for the $$$ K-pop generates, would rich white investors still want to profit off our Korean culture by bringing it to Broadway? Probably not.
I dream of a better Broadway. I dream of a radical, profit-sharing model that benefits the hard-working artists, crew, stage management, and staff who make 8 shows a week possible. That honors each artist who contributed to the development of the show along the way. Because until that happens, it will continue to be just a business, profiting off the very talent - and culture - of the artists themselves.
The weight of this moment is not lost on me. This show has so many firsts: 18 Broadway debuts; the first Asian American female composer on Broadway, Helen Park; the first show of its kind to marry K-pop music and choreography with musical theater. If my younger self could have seen KPOP, what would she have become? What would she have believed was possible?
I remain deeply proud of every single AAPI friend and colleague who has worked on KPOP, from its beginning stages through the many workshops, to its Broadway debut. I understand how much work and sacrifice goes into making a thing of this importance, what it means to our families - to our community. Identity pieces come with the unfair burden of representing an entire group of people - then historically having that work critiqued by someone not of your community. I have worked on enough Asian identity pieces to know that commercial success is never guaranteed. These shows felt like they were for us, and therefore grossly misunderstood by white critics. Perhaps critics this time around will get drunk on its catchy pop sound and charismatic performances, and overlook the plot holes.
I’m supposed to be happy for our moment, to celebrate the representation - and I am, I do. But I’m also scared that’s all it is - a moment - and we will return to being exoticized, stereotyped, loved for our culture and our food, but not as people. I think about Christina Yuna Lee, the 35-year-old Korean American woman murdered in her NYC apartment earlier this year. Abraham Lim mentions her name in his bio - that he has not forgotten her. And therein lies the burden: it’s up to us to remember her name. (Had you already forgotten her?) Can you love our massage workers, our nannies, our liquor store owners, our nail techs - the same way you love our K-pop idols?
What I know for sure is there’s no denying the electrifying Korean and AAPI talent onstage and behind the scenes in KPOP. This is certainly not the last we will see from any of them. And what I also know for sure is that until white people like Oli London stop getting plastic surgery in order to ‘look Korean,’ or telling me how much they love kimchi, or insert your example here - I will continue to interrogate the Western obsession with Korean culture.
If you’re AAPI, especially Korean American, and have seen KPOP - reach out to me. Let's get a drink and discuss our complicated feelings.