In a K-pop factory on a stage in New York

Jason Tam.
Jinwoo Jung.
Deborah Kim.
Sun Hye Park.

NEW YORK •When most Americans think of K-pop, what comes to mind is usually Psy's Gangnam Style - a high-octane fusion of rap verses, techno beats and pop hooks, complete with an ultra-bright music video and hypersynchronised dance moves. But playwright Jason Kim is hoping to change that.

"There's a desire to look at K-pop as goofy, strange and funny," he said, referring to that 2012 crossover hit. "What's so wonderful is that it's incredibly diverse - there's very serious K-pop and there's very goofy and funny K-pop."

This month, he is helping to introduce New York theatregoers to the varieties of the genre with the world premiere of a musical called Kpop. He co-conceived and wrote the book for the immersive show, which opened last Friday at ART/New York Theaters, in a co-production by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective.

Though he was a writer on HBO's Girls (2012-2017) and his play, The Model American, ran this summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Kpop is his first major New York theatre production.

The cast is big - 18 people, 17 of them Asian, a rarity in the American theatre world. "The fact that we're trying to make a show with not just one Asian person, but with 17 - I can't believe it," he said.

In South Korea, where K-pop is a billion-dollar industry, solo artists and bands are created in a manner not dissimilar to the old Hollywood studio system. Aspiring singers learn to sing and dance, and their personas are crafted by their record labels. They can train for up to 15 years before they even step onto a stage.

Kpop aims to give the audience a first-hand look at such hit factories. Ticket-buyers will get to tour a two-floor complex and watch as singers practise dance moves, construct an album, are evaluated by their labels and try to make themselves more palatable to American listeners. It culminates in a concert, with songs in both Korean and English. Helen Park and Max Vernon wrote the music and lyrics.

Not every audience member will have the same experience or encounter the same characters. So here is a chance to meet four Kpop performers. And true to the art form, some are experienced, others are novices and not all are Korean.


Portrays: Epic, a performer in the five-member boyband F8 (pronounced "fate"). Half-Korean, half-American, he was brought in "to make the band viable in America", said Tam, causing tensions with his bandmates, who are all Korean.

Inspired by: Justin Timberlake and Exo, a boyband that perform in Korean and Mandarin.

Korean?: No. Tam is Chinese, Hawaiian and Caucasian. He learnt the Korean songs in the show by recording himself on his iPhone and "listening and adjusting accordingly".


Portrays: Oracle, a member of F8 who objects to the group's attempts to be more "Americanised".

Inspired by: The chance to pursue a lifelong dream. "K-pop was something I always yearned for and I was never brave enough to reach out to," he said, citing the rigorous training. He became an actor instead.

Korean?: Yes. Jung was born in South Korea and moved to the United States five years ago. Preparation: Watches videos of live performances by BigBang, a K-pop boyband, before he goes on. "I always want to have their attitude."


Portrays: XO, a member of the six-member girl group Special K. "She's the rapper, like a bad b***h," Kim said.

Inspired by: For her Kpop audition, she performed a Korean rap from the song Fan by male hip-hop trio Epik High. "I really liked that I was cast as the rapper because that's something I'm interested in."

Korean?: Yes. Kim was born in New Jersey and speaks Korean. Appeal of the show: It has made her realise that "being something-hyphen-American is its own identity and culture".


Portrays: Callie, a member of Special K who is told she needs to lose her accent to be more marketable to Americans.

Inspired by: Girls' Generation, the eight-member girl group.

Korean?: Yes. Park was born in South Korea and moved to the US five years ago. Preparation: This is the first time she is performing in a musical. "I never thought about K-pop stars as really performers. Because they are always being pretty and sexy, like dolls. But singing and dancing and being pretty... it's so hard."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'In a K-pop factory on a stage in New York'. Subscribe