Canceling 'K-POP: The Musical' Is a Travesty
The Broadway show about K-pop idols is abruptly closing after two weeks, which, frankly, sucks.
On November 27, during the night's second-to-last song, "Hun Du Ruh (Shake It)," performed by the eight-boy K-pop group F8, dancing their asses off on a stage engulfed in a light projection of flames, the entire audience packed in Circle in the Square Theater was screaming, clapping, losing their minds. One 60-something white man in an athletic half-zip stood lonesome in his row dancing like a cybergoth at a techno rave under a bridge. Such is the euphoric frenzy of a K-pop concert, even on a Broadway stage.
This raucous evening should have been the tone-setting opening weekend of K-POP: The Musical, a backstage show in the vein of A Chorus Line or Dreamgirls but for K-pop idols on the same record label, that would run on Broadway through April. But late December 6, the news broke that K-POP would close on December 11, only 17 shows after it officially opened. (It also had 44 preview shows that began October 13.) "Is this the ideal outcome we wanted? Absolutely not," said Jason Kim, who created and wrote K-POP, in a statement to Thrillist after the cancelation. "Is it disappointing? Of course. But night after night for two months, we got to tell our story in front of thousands of diverse, young, 'non-traditional' audience members, and that is irrefutably special. It’s been an honor to be a small part of redefining what Broadway can mean. What I wish the most is for every single performer in this show to keep getting their fair shot. Because they are spectacular. I will miss seeing them on stage."
The show's brusquely kneecapped run isn't representative of the musical's prevailing spirit, a jubilant celebration of the genre that has soared in popularity in the West over the last decade and a candid, yet warmhearted portrayal into the drive and mindset of idols at various points in their careers within a famously demanding industry.
"We weren't interested in doing any kind of documentary, and we weren't interested in telling a story from a primarily Western gaze," said Kim before the show's official opening. "When you think of K-pop trainees and the system, you think of how grueling it is, and you think of how early you begin training, and you think of all the aspects of it that have been portrayed negatively. One thing that I really wanted to ask everybody to consider in the piece was I think that there is a tremendous amount of pleasure and honor in that, that people derive as Koreans. There is this joy to pursuing perfection in that way."
Watching the cast, 18 of who made their Broadway debut with K-POP, it's obvious they've made exactly that kind of mind-boggling effort to prepare for performing difficult original pop songs (written by Oscar-nominated songwriter Helen Park) that would feel completely at home in something like Spotify's K-Pop ON! playlist along with intensive, always-on dancing (choreographed by Jennifer Weber) that's expected from pro groups. In addition to F8 (pronounced "fate"), embroiled in mid-career drama amongst the members, there's the five-piece girl group RTEMIS ("Artemis") who are about to debut, and the star solo artist in a creative battle with her label Mwe, played by Luna. For K-pop naifs, she's one of the OG idols from the four-member girl group f(x), the first K-pop band ever to perform at SXSW in 2013.
For Kim, who grew up in Seoul before moving to the States at 9, and the rest of the crew, Luna was the "platonic ideal" for Mwe in this iteration of K-POP, which had begun as an award-winning immersive Off-Broadway show with a sold-out run in fall 2017, also because of her experience doing musical theater in Korea. "She was this incredibly unique and rare combination that we had dreamt about, and then, when we finally met her, it was just super clear from the first moment, 'You have to do this, even if you don't want to,'" Kim said. Watching Luna, it's hardly a surprise why the team felt so strongly about her. Her voice was impeccable; a single high note had the audience bursting into cheers. Whenever she came on stage, her presence pulled you in—and it wasn't even because of her flamboyant costumes. She's just a star.
"A handful of those cast members, English is their second language. And that's also true of Luna, our star," said Kim about K-POP, which switches between English and Korean. "To see her tackle that part so fearlessly, that's like 90% in English… I can't even order a croissant in France, and she's on stage in front of thousands of people every week, performing and singing and acting her face off in English. And to me, that was just so remarkable to see. That was a whole other level of dedication and proficiency and fearlessness, I think, that I haven't ever encountered before. I think it really just goes to show how much we ask of our performers, especially performers of color, that we don't really think about."
Another benefit of casting Luna was being able to hear about her experiences as one of the first international K-pop stars and having the flexibility to work those sentiments into the framework of the updated show, set on a single stage instead of two floors of a Hell's Kitchen warehouse. "We have this added layer of duty and obligation and honor and what it means to feel those things towards your fans, towards your country, towards your industry, your label mates," Kim said. "It was a 'duh' moment when Luna told me during rehearsal, 'Every time you do something as an idol, you have to think about your whole label.' I thought that was so interesting. You always wonder, or at least I do, the pop stars you grew up loving, do they care about you? Do they care about fans? And the truth is, they do."
For many reasons, it's a shame and a disservice to the theater community that K-POP is ending so prematurely—the lack of Asian representation on Broadway, the casually racist reviews that have subsumed the delight of the show itself, and, as Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris pointed out, the mis-marketing of a show that doesn't fit into the mold for a "standard white upper middle class theater audience"—in part of what it nails about K-pop as an experience. The pastel-lit modular stage would be a fit for any up-and-coming HYBE band. The costuming is so perfectly modeled after typical tropes: the laid-back girlies, the hyper-feminized boys, the military-adjacent uniforms. Integral aspects, like fan-cams and band introductions, are also baked naturally into the show. And the performers aren't just singing and dancing; they're working in winks and finger hearts and other individualized fan-service elements that make audiences swoon. "It's like doing Olympic-level gymnastics up there and singing and bouncing crazy high notes," Kim said. "I have a brisk walk to a Starbucks and I'm out of breath."
My showing was rowdy and ended with people throwing stemmed roses on the stage—"I didn't realize this would be like the crowd at the VMAs," I overheard the theater buff next to me say to his friend—but it wasn't the outlier relegated to the opening. They were all like that. Kim said that preview audiences were "reacting very vocally" night after night. "I am of the camp where I think theater should be very democratic, and it should be almost a participatory experience, like it used to be, forever ago," he said. "It's been such a joy because I think that people think of Broadway [as] you have to be pin drop silent, and you have to pay attention. But we really want people to have fun."
As an idea that's existed since 2014 and made, essentially, twice for very different venues, K-POP is a feat. "Broadway was something that I never even thought about writing for, growing up, largely because Asian musicals don't really exist, and when they do, we get one every 15, 20 years," Kim said. "So, to be able to create one with my collaborators, it's just such a gift." Kim is most grateful that his parents were able to see the show, especially his dad who had a health scare about five years ago but sat next to his son on the 27th. "That was really a big moment for me and the show expressing to him, not even only verbally, in verbal and nonverbal ways, something that he could understand because he doesn't speak English," Kim said. "We're a classic immigrant family. We moved here for education. It was just so nice to be able to say to my mom, 'Hey, see, I didn't go to medical school for a reason,' even though she still wants me to go."
Kim, who has written on the TV shows Barry, Girls, Divorce, and Love, can defy his parents' wishes a while longer. He's been nominated for an Emmy twice as a producer on Barry. He's a producer on the film adaptation of Crying in H Mart, the bestselling memoir by Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast. Earlier this year, it was announced that he would take on scripting duties for the Crazy Rich Asians spinoff about Gemma Chan's Astrid, and just in October, 20th Century Television signed him on a multi-year deal to develop several shows.
But now: Go, while you still can, to see K-POP while it's still on Broadway. Grab a bottle of the Good Day soju you can buy from the concession stand and sit down early to catch the B-sides of the musical (sung mostly by Helen Park, according to Kim) playing at grocery store-level decibels ahead of the show. If you're there on December 11, stay for the panel on AAPI representation in theater. And maybe, like any good K-pop stan would, band together with other fans online to demand that K-POP: The Musical lives on once more.