“KPOP” Makes an Uneasy Transition to Broadway

The musical “KPOP” showcases a variety of modern music—emo meditations, house-inflected bangers, rap arias that transition quickly into dance music and reggaetón—but the through line is a certain audience-courting intensity. Of course it is: South Korean stars (and the companies that manage them) are known for manufacturing well-polished public personae and cultivating fervent fan communities. Will the Broadway version be able to create the required level of idolatry? Can you make Beatlemania on command? Most of the audience at the nearly in-the-round Circle in the Square has known the five-member girl group RTMIS (sounds like the Greek goddess), the eight-member boy band F8 (sounds like destiny), and the solo star MwE (pronounced “mwee”) only for as long as we’ve been sitting in the theatre. It’s therefore up to the book writer Jason Kim, the composer-lyricists Helen Park and Max Vernon, and the director Teddy Bergman to kindle the adulation of a thousand hours in a bit more than two. Let’s go!

Structurally, “KPOP” is a box of mirrors, tucking the vicissitudes of three musical groups into the “rehearsal” for the very concert we’re about to watch. RBY Entertainment’s determined C.E.O., Ruby (Jully Lee), has conceived a one-night-only event, intending to introduce her stable of performers to an American audience. At the camera taping the day before, she and the white director, Harry (Aubie Merrylees), soon run into trouble: Harry is chafing at a job that he feels is beneath his dignity—he sees himself as a documentarian—so he tries to pressure the K-popsters into confessing their doubts and fears on film. The newest member of F8, Brad (Zachary Noah Piser), seems to seize any opportunity to stand out from the rest of his group, and Harry’s attention swivels to him. But, when the obviously fragile MwE (played by the real-life K-pop star Luna) flees a run-through, sharky Harry smells blood. Using a willing cameraman, Harry shoots MwE’s private dressing-room confrontation with her taskmaster/substitute mother, Ruby, and projects it, without her permission, onto a huge screen onstage.

This is tried-and-true material: it’s a little bit “Dreamgirls,” a little bit “Gypsy,” a little bit “MJ the Musical” (Lynn Nottage also used the “invasive interview” setup), a little bit “Jersey Boys.” As sturdy as these supports are, though, “KPOP” frequently loses its footing. Despite some clever integrating of Korean and English text—even the program is bilingual—a lot of “KPOP” goes clunk. Line by line, some dramatic scenes feel like temp tracks that will get the real dialogue later, and the English song lyrics can sound like deliberate spoofs. In the upbeat opening song, the members of RTMIS and F8 sing, “This is my Korea / This is my story-a.”

But a critical mass of the audience is hungry for beautiful people singing K-pop, and collective exhilaration has its own logic. Waves of noise and excitement whirl around the theatre’s curved architecture, and a staggered observer can feel like an accelerated particle, carried along by forces beyond her comprehension.

If you saw the Off Broadway version in 2017, produced by Ars Nova with Ma-Yi Theatre Company and Woodshed Collective, it’s hard not to miss its inventiveness and heart. I was an unabashed fan and have followed news of the show since. (A friend of mine was then Ars Nova’s associate artistic director, and is the current production’s dramaturge.) Five years ago, “KPOP” submerged you in the process of becoming a Korean pop star: audience members wandered around a hit-making factory (the A.R.T./New York complex standing in for a maze of studios and recording booths), eavesdropping on a plastic-surgery consultation, a gruelling dance class, a P.R. session. Kim conceived the intimate, interactive show with Woodshed—the immersive-theatre company behind “The Tenant” and “The Confidence Man”—where Bergman is the artistic director. Audience clusters saw different sequences in different orders, though MwE’s character was still a focus; in a striking scene, the audience kept absolutely still as she sang in her boudoir, plaintive and alone.

New York audiences, enjoying themselves voyeuristically, were massaged into believing that they were somehow glimpsing a cultural underbelly, so they didn’t realize, at first, that they were showing their own. By the end, though, a performer had turned to the theatregoers, asking why Korean music hadn’t crossed over into the American mainstream. The answers we came up with at the time, or at least the ones my group was nudged toward, were “incuriosity,” “racism,” and “fear of a foreign language.”

That entire innovative structure is gone. Half a decade is a generation in media terms, and, since 2017, Korean talent has revolutionized nearly every facet of global popular culture. (Even now, when K-pop superstars are selling out stadiums in America, there’s still plenty of bias to point to. Where, for instance, is BTS’s Grammy Award?) It’s only natural, then, that Kim, Park, and Vernon’s project has pivoted from audience-needling to a more booster-ish attitude. They have added a ton of songs, many of which are strong enough to stand alone. (This cast album should sell; the associated TikTok channels are already irresistible.) The show has also cranked up the production values: the lighting designer Jiyoun Chang and the projection designer Peter Nigrini turn the walls into volcanoes and star fields, and the choreographer Jennifer Weber’s propulsive dances tap into a certain atavistic pleasure. The virtuoso costume designers Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi top themselves with every number until their dizzying, coördinated palettes grow almost too bright to look at. It helps, too, that many of the performers have actual experience in the trenches—Luna, of course, but also RTMIS’s Min and BoHyung, who sang with Miss A and SPICA, respectively, and F8’s de-facto leader, Kevin Woo, who is a former member of U-KISS. “KPOP” thus seems to have been reënvisioned as a warm celebration of the will to perfection. “We had no interest in this piece being an exposé of any sort of the industry,” Kim said in an interview with Time.

Well, his script seems to have some interest in it. For instance, there’s the body-shaming, hypersexualizing stuff we glimpse in MwE’s flashbacks. Both Ruby and a choreographer berate a thirteen-year-old MwE. “Now, move those tree trunk legs,” Ruby barks. The choreographer (the always wonderful John Yi) complains, “Last week, I saw her eat a cake on her birthday.” The upset adolescent’s ensuing dance for “Wind Up Doll” is tonally troubling, with oddly erotic moves and lyrics like “You push the gear / Touch me that way. / You wind me up like clockwork / And I obey.”

With MwE’s story, Kim draws on the idea of han, which he defines in the script as “an intensity; a collective suffering that lingers at the edges of the Korean condition,” and puts a crack in the fantasy that he and the other creators have worked so hard to develop. The (many, many) songs are supposed to be a way to forget the real world, to imagine a paradisiacal, sanitized place where costumes look like army gear or B.D.S.M. outfits but no one actually dies or has sex (at least, based on the preteen way the audience squealed at a kiss). It’s the kind of laser-cut, power-washed heaven that only sacrifice and talent and a media-industrial behemoth can create. How sweet or inspiring is it, though, when we know that the thirteen-year-olds aren’t allowed to eat cake?

In the final six songs, what was a play with music becomes a full-on concert: an electronic-pop anthem segues into MwE’s Céline Dion-style ballad (wind machines emphasize that she is nailing hair-raisingly high notes), which dissolves into rock-fizz fantasia. The floor pulses brightly; then a gleaming silver-white light breaks like sunrise across the front row. This is what the show has wanted to do all along—cut its narrative tether. “Blast off!” the ensemble sings to the dancing audience, which is full of a specific, manic kind of love. “Now we’re flyin’ high through the sky.”

I found myself watching Abraham Lim, one of the members of F8, who has an extraordinary tenor voice but barely any spoken lines. Ramos and Choi put him in some spectacular outfits, including a series of belted lounge jackets, which give him an air of impenetrable seventies cool. When the audience reaction stops the show, his surprised, overwhelmed delight—he wipes away a tear—turns the key to the K-pop magic. What would it be like to make an icon feel the force of your love, to make him smile and cry? No wonder people scream. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *