People go to the theater for a multitude of reasons. Some go in search of a good time, some go in search of a lens to uphold their truths, and some go in search of epic stories. We live in an incredible time of storytelling: TV, movies, books, and of course, theater are more abundant than ever. I am someone who goes to the theater in search of a story that viscerally moves me. Musicals happen to be my favorite. Even with the immense talent on and off-stage, KPOP closed early on Broadway for a myriad of reasons, and I believe that one of those reasons is that it did not succeed as a musical.
Now, hear me out. Before you take out your pitchforks and question why I am not a supporter of Asian art, let’s make one thing clear: KPOP on Broadway is a remarkable feat. The show accounted for 18 Broadway debuts in its majority Asian cast. It featured Broadway’s first Asian female composer Helen Park, a stunning set by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, inventive costumes by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, intricate choreography by Jennifer Weber, and a ridiculously talented ensemble. KPOP’s run on Broadway did the impossible and should be revered as a shining example of Asian excellence in theater. And as one of my collaborators constantly reminds me, “good” and “bad” are subjective. Every piece of art has its audience. I can only evaluate what I experienced based on my biases and tastes and understanding of musical theater, from the practice of writing musicals myself.
To start, watching KPOP put a huge smile on my face — it was a joy to watch friends, colleagues, and peers I respect display their talent and pride onstage. We have finally moved beyond Miss Saigon and The King and I. Simultaneously, I was puzzled at many scenes and songs, not because I didn’t understand the language, but because every vignette of each storytelling element seemed disjointed. The pieces of Jason Kim’s book did not amount to a greater whole. I was waiting for a transcendent experience, like when Little Allison in Fun Home sang “Ring of Keys,” or that subway scene in A Strange Loop, or cliche as it may be, the timeless Elphaba in Wicked raising her lungs to belt out “Defying Gravity.” Each of these moments humanized the characters in a way that I related to, a masterful culmination of the craft of storytelling, but in KPOP, the experiences were much more distant because the writing did not help to personalize the characters’ experiences. Kim’s book had constant shifts in tone and scenes felt like they were just happening, instead of being lived in. Many scenes skimmed the surface of a character’s want or struggle, and just when we started to have a glimpse of their inner life, we were already in a song. Most of the time, that song was not in conversation with the scene we just witnessed (Music & Lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon). The lack of synergy between scenes and songs amplified the show’s lack of success in the medium.
Mind you, I come from an idol-chasing background in Asia. At 16, I won Singapore’s version of American Idol and was known all around the island as a champion of a nationally televised singing competition. I went on to compete in other international competitions all across Asia, including in Taiwan and China, and people came to know me as one of the singers in Singapore before Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok were popular. After winning the competition, I was denied a record by Warner Music Singapore because the Head of A&R at the time said I was too fat and would not sell records. I know what it is like to be wrapped in the ins and outs of the grueling entertainment industry at a young age, where you are seen as a product like the central character in KPOP, MwE (played by Luna). Every day you train so hard that you lose a sense of self and direction of what you want.
Seeing all these incredible performers on stage, the immediate thought that came to mind was that fat people have been erased from KPOP’s narrative. This show could have been an incredible opportunity to examine an issue that is prevalent in idol and Asian culture. Celebrities are scrutinized for gaining weight. Asian families have no qualms about bringing up how one should be shedding pounds after the holidays. I believe that critique and evaluation should always be based on the author's intent, and I recognize that perhaps it was not the author’s intent to explore all the facets of toxic idol culture. However, from what I received as an audience member, KPOP did not reveal anything I did not already know going into the show — that idol life is hard, unforgiving, and requires many sacrifices. I wanted the nitty gritty from this show, I wanted the down and dirty, I wanted to feel the weight of these characters’ sacrifices. But the show’s sanitized version of idol culture was elusive and did not shake me. At the end of the show, I wondered if I was supposed to be happy that MwE still went back and continued to be a superstar. I questioned what I was rooting for. Like the show says, technical execution of art is not enough to illicit an emotional response (I learned this the hard way in my idol career, but that’s a story for another time). I never got the opportunity to see the Off-Broadway version of this show, but removing the interactive and immersive nature of the show likely removed a storytelling element that invoked the visceral response that I craved.
Songs in musicals are used to highlight a side of the story that could not be told through normal dialogue. There have been many exceptions, including how songs were utilized in musicals like Spring Awakening or Passing Strange, where songs acted as a conduit to illuminate the inner life of a character — their struggle or desire. As catchy as every number in KPOP was (I am still humming “This is My Korea” and “Gin and Tonic” in my sleep), few of them propelled the story forward, or provided context for action, conflict, or drama of the scene. As I watched these numbers on repeat, I questioned, “Why is this story being told in the medium of a musical?” I would have gladly attended this KPOP concert without the expectation of the medium of storytelling. But, if so, why am I not watching BLACKPINK or BTS instead? Even the song that Brad, played by Zachary Noah Piser, sang (“Halfway”) could have delved deeply into the character being Hapa and not accepted by his teammates. Instead, the pop lyrics tried to obliquely examine that dynamic, and I did not think it succeeded.
You may think: KPOP has closed. Why should we still discuss the merits of the show? Shouldn’t we just celebrate the show for its triumphs? Yes, we should absolutely shout to the rooftops how monumental this production has been. Yell out how Broadway was not ready for stories that are not centered around a white narrative. And at the same time, I think it is critical to evaluate KPOP’s shortcomings, so that going forward, every artist gets to learn from what came before. And perhaps be equally as brave to make different mistakes. Do I think this is the end of Helen Park and Max Vernon’s Broadway career? Absolutely not. They have only just begun, and I am ecstatic to see what they embark on next. I believe that it is because of writers like Helen that I am able to write my truth and share it with you. It is unfair to ask every piece of theater centered around an Asian experience to be the next shining beacon to move us forward, because there’s been so little to see and so little to consume, that as an Asian person living in America, you crave for every piece of Asian art to achieve an exceptional standard. It’s an impossible task. How many pieces of mediocre theater made by white artists have been allowed to exist simply because there’s sufficient exceptional theater made by white artists to compensate for its mediocrity? And KPOP is by no means mediocre. I had an incredible time at the show: I danced, I cheered, I hollered, and at the same time, I questioned, I reflected, I evaluated.
Going into 2023, my writing mantra is that no musical can do everything. As I walked out of the theater, there was an audience member yelling for KPOP to release a cast album (of which, your wishes are granted!), and I saw Asian kids and families smiling, having finally seen a piece of who they are or could be on stage. KPOP is phenomenal representation for my community and at the same time, it needed work. Broadway was not ready for KPOP, but I believe KPOP the musical was also not ready for Broadway. Both statements can be true, both statements can exist. In my opinion — and this entire think-piece is just an opinion of one person — there is only one way forward: we need more Asian theater. Only then, can we fully embrace the multitudes of each piece of art.