K-pop is short for Korean pop, but the genre broke down geographic barriers long ago. It’s undoubtedly a global sensation, with groups like BTS and BLACKPINK perpetually ranking high in the streaming charts.
Now, the genre is expanding its reach even further: K-pop has arrived on Broadway.
It comes in the form of KPOP, which opened over the weekend at Circle in the Square Theatre with an almost entirely Asian American cast. Written by playwright Jason Kim, the musical follows various K-pop performers—including a solo artist, a girl group and a boy band—as they prepare for a debut performance in New York City. Along the way, the performers weather interpersonal conflicts and pressure to break into the American music industry—an industry that isn’t always willing to make space for diverse artists.
Kim first dreamed up a K-pop-infused Broadway musical a decade ago, according to Deepti Hajela of the Associated Press (AP). Born in South Korea and raised in the American Midwest, Kim grew up loving K-pop and musical theater in equal measures, he tells the AP. In 2017, his dreams became a reality when KPOP debuted off-Broadway, with music and lyrics composed by Helen Park and Max Vernon.
The show’s arrival on Broadway is a massive step forward for Asian diaspora representation in musical theater. “It was really important to me to put these Asian people on stage and see them not playing the typical roles that they play, but playing rock stars, playing pop stars, dancing their faces off and acting their faces off and just being spectacular,” Kim tells the AP.
Among KPOP’s cast are real-life former K-pop performers such as Luna, who was once a member of the girl group f(x). She portrays MwE, a solo singer at the center of the show, and will share the stage with fellow K-pop performers including Kevin Woo, Min and Bohyung.
The trials and tribulations they portray onstage mirror many of their real-life experiences as performers, Luna says.
“It really encapsulates what I, Luna, am going through in my life stages,” Luna tells Time magazine’s Kat Moon. “As a K-pop idol, there have been times when I definitely felt mute—where I can’t express what I’m going through because of that position.”
Embodying MwE was not always a walk in the park, Luna says. “Developing the character was sometimes a bit traumatic,” she tells Time magazine. “I had to go back into my own life and sometimes bring back past memories that have been triggering.” But in the end, she adds, “developing the character has given me a type of healing.”
Park tells the AP that composing the music to KPOP is a dream come true.
“K-pop and Broadway have both been my passion for a long time; K-pop has been like comfort food for me, and Broadway was my seemingly unattainable dream, given there haven’t been many Asian composers, let alone Asian female composers that I can see and dream to be like,” she says. “To be able to bring something that feels like home to me, to my dream stage, Broadway, feels like the most miraculous gift that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.”