For ‘KPOP,’ a Broadway Transfer Is More Like a Reinvention

The show’s creative team talks about revamping the immersive Off Broadway hit so that it moves “around the audience” at Circle in the Square Theater.

Back in 2017, the musical “KPOP” had the kind of Off Broadway premiere that showbiz dreams are made of. The buzz around the production — which had the rare distinction of being about a specifically Asian pop-music style and having a largely Asian creative team — was so intense that desperate New Yorkers were pleading for tickets to its sold-out run at the small A.R.T./New York Theaters in Midtown Manhattan.

Talk of a Broadway transfer started quickly thereafter, but, for a variety of reasons including the pandemic, it took five years for “KPOP” to finally make the jump. Now, at long last, the show is in previews, with an opening night set for Nov. 20.

The musical Broadway audiences will see, however, is a very different beast from the one that opened in 2017: This is not so much a transfer as a reinvention.

The original Ars Nova production, presented with Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective, was an immersive spectacle in which audience members followed a bunch of artists from room to room on two floors, and discovered how the Korean music industry relentlessly drills its stars (called idols) into poptastic precision.

None of the 41 Broadway theaters could accommodate this sort of staging. But at least the one the show finally grabbed, Circle in the Square Theater, has a unique asset: It’s in the round.

“I like to say it’s the world’s smallest arena — it’s a postage stamp of Madison Square Garden,” the director, Teddy Bergman, said. “For a show that traffics in pop, that collective energy and that collective effervescence felt like something we could capture like lightning in a bottle.”

To preserve the sense that the audience is getting behind-the-scenes insights, the book writer, Jason Kim, altered the framing device: The show is now set up like a mockumentary about an upcoming American tour for a K-pop entertainment company’s roster — the boy band F8, the girl group RTMIS and the solo singer MwE.

“At Ars Nova, the audience moved around and in this production we’re very much trying to move the piece around the audience,” Kim said. “I think the spirit of the show has been preserved, although it is a different format, and we are trying to engage the audience in very much a different way. We loved that the new theater casts an extra member, which is the audience.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Another reason for the transformation is the fact that the moment “KPOP” originally aimed to capture has changed dramatically. In 2017, most Americans had no knowledge of K-pop, save perhaps for the song “Gangnam Style,” by Psy. Nowadays, Korean acts like Stray Kids routinely top the U.S. music charts and in May a K-pop artist, AleXa, won NBC’s “American Song Contest” on behalf of Oklahoma, where she was raised.

Over the past five years, Bergman said, “BTS happened and ushered in a whole new appreciation and understanding and reception of this music in the States.”

He added: “We wanted to focus on what is the journey, the cost, the joy, the exhilaration, the sacrifice of these pathbreakers who are journeying into new territories and spreading this music. I didn’t have to come from a position of having to explain much, or really anything to the audience. It really freed us up to be able to dig deeper psychologically, emotionally.” (The show’s close relationship with South Korea means the deadly crowd surge in Seoul was deeply felt; the Broadway production made a curtain speech last weekend and had a moment of silence, and posted a statement on social media.)

One beneficiary of this change in focus has been the character of MwE, played Off Broadway by Ashley Park and now portrayed by Luna, a South Korea-based actress and former member of the K-pop girl group f(x).

“What I’m very excited about in this version is the examination of the female characters,” said Helen Park, who wrote the bilingual score with Max Vernon, and orchestrated and produced it for Broadway. “They all have different ambitions, different journeys, different histories, different characteristics. As an Asian woman, that’s something so special.”

While MwE, only in her mid-20s, is already a battle-hardened music-industry vet, the new character of Brad is at the start of his idol career and struggling because he is being shunned by his F8 bandmates. Not only was he the last to join the band, but his being mixed race becomes a factor as well. The role had resonance for the actor playing him, Zachary Noah Piser, who has Chinese and Jewish roots: This spring he became the first Asian American actor to play the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen” full time on Broadway.

“Brad’s whole situation is very kind of meta because it was very me — I was a newcomer to the Broadway production of ‘KPOP’ and he is the Asian white boy from Connecticut who gets plucked up and placed in this group,” Piser said in a video chat. Brad acts as an entry point into issues centering on identity — which were already present in the first version, but have since been retooled.

“When we first started writing, the main idea behind the show was ‘How could K-pop cross over in America?’ — it’s what these Korean artists have to sacrifice in their authenticity in order to be palatable to an American market,” Vernon said on the phone. “Obviously K-pop crossed over, so we asked different questions, like, ‘What’s going on in these artists’ mental state behind the scenes? What kind of pressure is that exerting on their psyche, on their relationships with other people in their band?’”

Luna, who got her start in K-pop before turning to musical theater in South Korea (starring in shows like “Legally Blonde,” for example), pointed out that “KPOP” nails the genre’s emphasis on rigorous training.

“There are such detailed scenes that are really rooted in the reality of that world,” Luna said via an interpreter in a video conversation. “I feel that people who are actually K-pop singers or who are trainees will really relate. It also gives a sense of consolation for the immense amount of effort and hard work put into creating K-pop.”

Justin J Wee for The New York Times

SUCH AN OVERHAUL of the show’s concept and characters also required a reshaping of the score, which The New York Times’s Ben Brantley described as being “as synthetically sweet and perversely addictive as the real thing” in his review. When asked about the balance between old and new songs, the creative team agreed that it was about half and half — “maybe more new than old,” Park said.

She and Vernon also had to reflect the changes in the genre at large: The acts that were popular when they started working on the show, back in 2014, are different from the current ones, and fans were sure to notice dated references.

“We were responding to Exo, 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, Psy, Big Bang, but K-pop music changes every three to four years so it would be like doing a show called ‘Pop’ and all the music sounds like Britney rather than Billie Eilish or whatever the great artists are that you’re listening to right now,” Vernon said on the phone. “Sometimes by the time musicals are on Broadway, it feels like they’re lagging 15 years behind the culture — we did not want that.”

Similarly, the choreographer Jennifer Weber, who is also handling the Max Martin jukebox musical “& Juliet,” had to work within the specific parameters of K-pop dancing. Key elements are point moves, which are the visual answers to the songs’ hooks (one of the most famous remains Psy’s horse-riding gimmick in “Gangnam Style”).

And because members of a group trade vocal lines at a quick pace, careful integration is needed to make the choreography work. “You have to almost break it down mathematically about who’s singing at what time,” Weber said on the phone. “You need to constantly be revealing who’s singing, so that person needs to pop out of the formation for their line — and that line could be as little as two bars.”

Another way to assure that the show recreates the wondrous, kinetic excitement the best K-pop acts generate was to hire performers who had spent time in the trenches and could share their experience: In addition to Luna, the cast includes BoHyung, a former member of the girl group Spica; Min, formerly of Miss A; and Kevin Woo, once in U-KISS.

“A lot of my questions in the first weeks were like, ‘How do you breathe? How do you execute this incredibly intricate choreography?’” Piser said. “The biggest response I got from the K-pop idols in our show was, ‘You’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be good to yourself and you’ve got to trust the process.’”

With “KPOP” now on Broadway, its creators are aware that the show is not just going up against other musicals but against actual K-pop artists — and this time again, the intimacy of Circle in the Square could come through.

“We’re competing with Blackpink and BTS,” Bergman said, laughing, “but I don’t know where else you’re going to see BTS with 600 other people. Unless you’re Jeff Bezos or something.”

Source: Music -


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