Broadway's KPOP announced this week that the December 11 performance will be its final at the Circle in the Square Theatre. When the ghost light comes out after the final show, the production will have played just 44 previews and 17 regular performances.
A behind-the-scenes look at and celebration of the worldwide K-pop music phenomenon, KPOP struggled at the box office since it began in October, an especially disappointing situation for a musical that was a surprise hit Off-Broadway in 2017. To add insult to injury, the closing notice comes on the heels of public discord between the show's company and New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green, whose negative review was described by KPOP's producers as "casual racism."
As everyone involved with the production waits for the smoke to clear, songwriter Helen Park (who collaborated on the musical's score with Max Vernon) has penned this guest essay. It is included in full below.
As I bite into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I mindlessly put together, I find myself overcome with emotion.
Yesterday, the producers of KPOP, a show that I’ve worked on for the last eight years as composer and music producer, announced that the show is losing too much money and will close. We opened a week and a half ago and only had 17 performances since opening day.
This is hard to fathom.
Standing in my kitchen looking down at this half-eaten sandwich, I’m suddenly asking myself, what does this show mean to me? It’s a question I get often but one I struggle to answer in just a few sentences.
I remember eight years ago when the show found me. The people at Off-Broadway’s Ars Nova had a big ambition to do something new—something that’s never been done before in the New York theatre scene. With Psy’s K-pop hit, “Gangnam Style,” sweeping the world and Korean bubblegum idol music videos, so different and exotic, on the rise, it made perfect sense to create a theatrical experience based on this genre of music. As a lover of K-pop and musical theatre, I was thrilled to come on board.
Even though the show was originally conceived by others, I had a vision as the composer and music producer. I wanted to write what I know. That’s what I learned from musical theatre writing class at NYU, to write from my heart. No matter what anyone says, I was going to stay true to what I believe is my story.
That, I realized, was easier said than done. The truth was that so many people had ideas and opinions for what an Asian show called KPOP should look and sound like. For a show about K-pop and Korean culture to succeed in New York, doesn’t it have to appeal to New York theatregoers? But those audiences are typically white, so the conversation inevitably became about how to ensure that the show would be worth watching in their eyes. How can we make KPOP a weird and exotic experience? Can we make the girls over-the-top cute and the boys way too pretty? Can we talk about North Korea and the DMZ? Can we talk about skin care and plastic surgery? Snail cream? Kimchi? Bibimbap? Can we make our characters different enough for them to be interesting? Can we make them feel “other”?
This was not new to me after my 20-year experience as an Asian living in North America. I can’t remember how many times people assumed that I’m exactly like the stereotypical vision of what an Asian should be, heavily based on what they learned from white-made mainstream media. That I must be docile and submissive, studious, and lack emotions. I have seen my parents, the wisest and smartest professionals I know, experience a whole new layer of prejudice in America. There was always the misconception that your level of English reflected your intellect. It dawned on me that English-speaking Americans have never experienced this disconnect between what is presented in speech and what really is going on inside, and the isolation from feeling misunderstood.
And here I was, attempting to write my story through this show and through this genre of music that I love. Despite the pressure from all sides, I made it my mission to stay authentic to this complicated, unique experience of mine, of being in between two languages, two cultures, two worlds.
There were many times when I was tempted to give in to my internalized biases. For example, I initially debated whether we should have Korean lyrics at all. Or if I should change the song structures to make them more like traditional musical theater songs. But that would have been contradictory to my goal to faithfully represent the world of K-pop and its people. That would have been inauthentic to my culture, my story. So with the support of my collaborator and fellow Korean-American, Jason Kim, we chose to be bold.
In transferring the show to Broadway, we were determined to fearlessly embrace our voice. We were not interested in tweaking our story simply to satisfy the stereotype-drenched expectations from the white gaze. The Koreans on the creative team tirelessly advocated for authenticity, from making a slick logo design and casting K-pop stars, to making sure the makeup and hair styles felt true to the genre. And we loudly asked that all the non-Korean creatives do their research to their best abilities. And our amazing designers and crew delivered.
This yearning for authenticity also meant pushing myself towards representing the genre as best as I can within the job I was responsible for. With every song, I wrote on average eight different drafts, until it felt like a believable popular K-pop song. Last night, as I watched the first show after the announcement of the closing, I was in tears the entire performance. For every song, I could vividly remember those moments where I finally came up with the melody that stuck. I remember the physical space of that moment. The joy and imagination that filled me as I was vibing to an early draft of a song. And I was witnessing the final product right in front of my eyes—being performed by the most talented group of performers I’ve witnessed in my life, with the most infectious energy that I’ve felt on a Broadway stage.
There’s a song in our show sung by a half-Asian character named Brad, played by Zach Piser. It’s called “Halfway,” and it’s about the experience of feeling halfway towards finding identity as a biracial person. My biracial six-year-old son came to see the show and immediately sang “Halfway, halfway” on the way home, saying it’s his favorite song. He told me he wanted to be in KPOP when he grows up, “if it still exists.” He might be too young to realize the significance and the rarity of this, but he saw himself represented on stage, loud and proud, flawed and complicated. He saw himself represented as fully human, on the Great White Way. That’s the moment I felt like I must have done something right.
I see audiences like my son every night, young and old. I see how their eyes light up as they see themselves represented in the form of superstars. Perhaps for some of them, they’re superheroes.
We’ve just started to tell our story. We pushed boundaries, and we broke many glass ceilings with 18 Broadway debuts. We created an all-original musical, the only one this season, unapologetically in our own way, with passion and pride. And just as we’re about to start, the doors are closing on us. I honestly don’t know what to make of that.
To my fellow Asian creatives: please do not think this means you should stop making bold, honest art. It would be catastrophic if the lesson learned here is that to have any chance of success on Broadway, we must cater to the white gaze and cherry pick what they would like to see. I wish for more diverse stories, told from an authentic point of view. And I can’t help but feel that we’re still only halfway there.
There’s a scene where Brad confesses he threw a bowl of sundubu stew on the wall, yelling at his mom, “Why can’t you just make me a peanut butter and jelly!”
I’m thinking of that and crying with my mouth full of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
And I’m dreaming of having a bowl of my mom’s hearty doenjang soup tonight.