Jaemiss-eoyo! Jaemiss-eoyo? Both inflections of fun, as exclamation and question – it’s fun!/did you have fun? – echoed throughout the mezzanine of the Circle in the Square theater as a packed house spilled out of the evening preview of KPOP: The Musical. The musical, conceived by Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim, with a book by Jason Kim and music and lyrics by Helen Park (as well as music production and arrangements) and Max Vernon, directed by Teddy Bergman and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, is an unabashed love song to k-pop. The multicultural, multigenerational audience gushed to each other. Many had bopped along to the final showstopper ready to hop to their feet for the standing ovation. Others rushed to the merchandise booth. Even more gathered at the roped off area in front of the stage door to greet their new idols. Before the show, the man seated next to me confessed that this was his fourth time seeing the production, snagging day-of tickets as consolation for whenever work was a grind.
As I navigated my way out of the theater up to 50th Street, I marveled at the heung of it all. Heung names a Korean structure of feeling, a social emotion of exhilaration or joy. It is a flipside of han, irrevocable grief and postcolonial rage, which gets more press like Euny Hong’s 2018 essay “Kimchi Temper” in Lenny and more nuance like E.J. Koh’s poem, “American Han.” Both are culturally specific and untranslatable (and the question of translation is a thing in the musical, which chooses not to have subtitles for Korean dialogue or lyrics, which have not been barriers to global fans of k-pop); and yet, heung and han name feelings that one can be swept up in, like descending from Times Square into a theater transformed from in-the-round to a thrust stage that is like a mini-Madison Square Garden. Then transported back in time, to “yesterday” to get a “sneak peek” at the turmoil and triumphs of past, present and future k-pop idols.
While k-pop is able to meld disparate musical genres, from bubblegum, techno, EDM, R&B, to hip hop, Kim’s book is a tangle of genres: a rehearsal play within an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music; A Star is Born by way of Christmas Carol; reality television meets k-drama. The temporal frame of the book is jarring. The plot begins “yesterday,” the day before the U.S. debut of RBY Entertainment’s two new groups, F8, the boy band, and RTMIS, the girl group, and the label’s star MwE (played by real K-pop idol Luna). All three rehearse under the strict supervision of Ruby (understudy Marina Kondo at the performance I attended), a former idol. These rehearsals are filmed as part of a behind-the-scenes documentary. Looking back accelerates when the MwE stops performing to stare through Ruby, who has been a surrogate mother to her, to see the ghost of her biological mother. F8 navigate interpersonal tension about racial, ethnic, and national identity, in a tantalizing though ultimately unsatisfying manner, going “Halfway” to articulate the individual conflict of biracial Korean American Brad (played by Zachary Noah Piser, formerly Broadway’s first Asian American Evan Hansen), who sings “I’m always halfway, halfway…what can I do to find my place?”), after broaching questions about Korean ethnonationalism. Members of RTMIS refuse to play along with the director, who is trying to capture juicier content (including filming MwE without her consent). Interspersed between behind-the-scenes tensions which Harry, the director, (played by Aubie Merrylees) happily meddles with, are flashbacks of MwE plucked from obscurity and moving through the grueling star system of k-pop (experiences summed up in the song, “Wind Up Doll”). These flashbacks backfill Ruby and MwE’s relationship to set her up as the debt-bound daughter and hastily frame Mwe’s engagement to childhood friend Juny (Jinwoo Jung). The book muddles the present-day action of the musical. Harry is fired (the audience cheered), but other things are left up in the air. If Act 1 is “yesterday,” then most of Act 2 is the American debut concert itself or is it still the rehearsal of the concert? Does “today” ever come for MwE, F8, RTMIS? And what of tomorrow?
What shines through are the performances, energy, and spectacle of KPOP. One cannot help but marvel at the performers, who are singing and dancing their asses off, an ensemble of Asian American performers (Julia Abueva, Major Curda, Jinwoo Jung, Jiho Kang, Amy Keum, James Kho, Marina Kondo, Eddy Lee, Joshua Lee, Jully Lee, Lina Rose Lee, Timothy H. Lee, Abraham Lim, Kate Mina Lee, Patrick Park, John Yi) and k-pop stars (Luna, BoHyung, Min, Kevin Woo). Rather than “perfection” as the purported draw for global audiences to k-pop, which a member of RTIMS retorts to Harry, KPOP: The Musical offers instead the dedication and devotion of their performers.
They are assisted in this endeavor by the designers. Clint Ramos & Sophia Choi’s costumes for RTIMS and F8 are ingeniously – and hilariously – coordinated; the quick changes, pure theater magic. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting shifts from isolating characters to maximalist explosions for the second act’s concert. (Full disclosure, I worked as a dramaturg with Ramos as set designer and Chang as lighting designer on a different production as they finished work on KPOP). The movable thrust stage dominates Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s set, but I was most taken by how the stadium-style set, complete with screens and cameras, integrated seamlessly with Peter Nigrini’s projections, to highlight how k-pop is a form of multimedia performance. The moving platform, the layered screens, and projections of breaking waves literalize k-pop as South Korean soft power riding the success of hallyu, or the Korean Wave.
In helping me put my finger on the experience of seeing KPOP, I am indebted to performance scholar Suk Young Kim who connects the liveness of k-pop, which for many white critics is an oxymoron, and heung. In doing so Kim must also square heung’s cultural, ethnic, and racial specificity with a global fandom that transcends the borders of South Korea. For Kim, heung ultimately names “the innate energy in every human being that is reserved for the spontaneous joy of playing that shines through despite counterforces.” And there are counterforces, internal and external, dramaturgical and socio-political.
Broadway is contested ground for Asian and Asian American artists. If KPOP invites us to look back, then it’s hard not to reflect on how the American musical as a form has perpetuated racist stereotypes and performance practices like yellowface. In turn, the Great White Way has also been a space to occupy and protest by Asian American actors and activists. I think of this genealogy in the smiles and sweat of the performers in KPOP as they belt lyrics and push their limbs through precision choreography, which follows k-pop song structure to give space to showcase each and every member. Indeed, eighteen of the 22-person ensemble of KPOP are making their Broadway debut with KPOP. K-pop fans use the term bias to refer to a fan’s favorite member of a group. They also name another member as their bias wrecker, someone with the potential to make them rethink their bias. While KPOP might not be one’s favorite, being swept up in the heung has the potential to make Broadway rethink its bias and open space for other stories, songs, languages, and audiences.