How the Korean music industry and an Off-Broadway musical inspired 'KPOP' on Broadway

The new musical looks behind the curtain of the globally famous, competitive K-pop world.

Diep Tran
Diep Tran

If you’re a fan of Korean-born pop groups such as BTS or Blackpink, then KPOP on Broadway is a must-see musical this season. The show is set in the ultra-competitive world of the Korean pop music industry, centering on fictional K-pop stars performing their first concert in America in the hopes of earning global fame.

The pressure to succeed is on, and the characters' struggles reflects the actual career journeys — highs and lows — of real-life K-pop artists, as the music genre has recently exploded into the worldwide mainstream. But although KPOP examines the unique challenges of K-pop fame, there's also plenty of fun to be had, as KPOP features catchy original K-pop music, high-energy choreography, and an almost all-Asian cast led by real-life K-pop stars.

Below, learn even more about the influences that inspired this new, chart-topping Broadway musical, including the Korean music industry and the writers' past stage and screen projects.

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KPOP on Broadway is based on the real-life global K-pop phenomenon.

K-pop technically just stands for "Korean pop," and South Korean pop music has been around for decades. Nowadays, though, the term refers mostly to music by specific K-pop "idols," an industry term that became popular in the 1990s.

"Idols" are K-pop boy bands, girl groups, and solo artists whose agencies and/or record labels carefully curate their music style and public persona. They're trained in singing, dance, languages, and more so they appeal to a broad international fanbase.

The rise of MTV in America in the 1990s, and the international success of boy bands such as New Kids on the Block, actually gave way to K-pop idol culture. Korean entertainment moguls wanted to create a similar star system in the Asian market, but it's no wonder K-pop eventually made the jump to the American scene.

K-pop artists were performing in America here and there in the early 2000s, but the phenomenon truly gained widespread American traction in the 2010s. The song "Gangnam Style," which became an internet craze in 2012, is an early example of K-pop in the mainstream. The boyband BTS ushered in the latest K-pop popularity wave in the second half of the 2010s, winning Grammy Awards and becoming the first K-pop band with a #1 hit on the Billboard charts.

The KPOP Broadway musical takes place amid this wave, focusing on fictional idols whose label is looking launch their stateside careers. Adding to the authenticity, the KPOP cast features real-life K-pop idols who have had similar career trajectories. They include Luna (formerly of the girl group f(x)), Bo Hyung Kim (formerly of SPICA and half of the duo KEEMBO), Min Young Lee (formerly of Miss A), and Kevin Woo (formerly of U-KISS).

Learn more about the K-pop stars in the KPOP musical.

KPOP is the first Broadway musical about Korean culture.

KPOP is not the first Broadway show centered on Asian characters; Miss Saigon and The King and I are decades-old examples, though those have non-Asian creative teams behind them. More recently, in 2015, Allegiance became the first Broadway musical with Asian creators and a mostly Asian cast, making it a more authentic staging of the Asian experience. KPOP also features a mostly Asian cast and writing team, and it is the first Broadway musical specifically celebrating Korean culture.

But KPOP still has universal appeal. K-pop music is influenced by multiple music genres you might already listen to, like hip hop, R&B, jazz, disco, rock, country, and folk in addition to Korean traditional. Plus, the story of rising music stars trying to succeed will thrill American Idol or The Voice fans, while introducing them to something new.

Luna, who plays the fictional solo artist MwE, told she hopes KPOP introduces audience members unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the Korean pop industry to a pivotal part of the country's culture.

"I would love for the audience to want to listen to more K-pop and want to know more of Korean culture," she said. "It is not just a monolith; it is a collection of diverse voices, diverse artists and diverse genres all within the world of K-pop. I would love for the audiences to see the dreams of young artists played out on stage."

KPOP is the brainchild of a writer from Girls.

The KPOP musical also has a connection to a popular American property. Jason Kim first conceptualized the show; he is a playwright and screenwriter who worked on the hit HBO series Girls. Like KPOP, that show focuses on young people pursuing their ambitions and facing the challenges that come with doing so.

KPOP allowed Kim to take that theme and apply it closer to home. He was born in Seoul and moved to the United States when he was 10. Korean pop music was the soundtrack to his formative years. In creating the musical, Kim wanted to explore Asian American identity.

“I really wanted to use what K-pop meant to me as a way to talk about what I was feeling about myself and about the culture at large,” he told NPR. “The narrative of the show feels to me like a narrative that many people experience when they start to think about identity. And for me that narrative has been, 'Oh, there's something different about me. What can I do to investigate that? And how do I "fix" that to become something different, something — someone — else?' And ultimately come to the realization that actually, this is not going anywhere. And I got to accept it for what it is.”

KPOP is loosely based on an Off-Broadway musical.

A KPOP musical first premiered off Broadway in 2017, with a book by Kim and music and lyrics from Helen Park and Max Vernon. (The songs were in Korean and English.)

The musical was originally immersive. Audiences explored two different levels of a fictional K-pop factory where prospective pop stars are trained. The show featured multiple concurrent narratives in which the various singers figured out their signature sound and what they wanted to tell the world through their music. KPOP also asked a larger question: even though K-pop is a billion-dollar industry in Korea, why have no stars broken through to the U.S.?

When that question was posed to the audience in 2017, Kim recalled, the answers ranged from "'because you guys are weird' or 'because you guys are too "stylized,"' whatever that means, to 'because of systemic racism.'"

That original KPOP production was acclaimed for its catchy songs and unique presentation, selling out and winning the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. But despite the acclaim, the show needed an overhaul to be staged in a Broadway theatre. Now, the show is no longer immersive, and there is a singular plot: A group of K-pop superstars prep for a special one-night-only concert, their American debut. Backstage troubles arise.

Park said the musical is also slightly different thematically. K-pop has achieved mainstream success in the United States in the five years since the Off-Broadway musical premiered, so the musical is no longer about how America is hostile to Asian music artists.

Now, “it’s really about finding your voice,” Park told Maestra. “When you’re in the machine of K-pop, it’s sometimes confusing, what you are and what you do, the boundaries — it’s sometimes hard to find yourself and find what you want. [Now], this show is more about that journey rather than [in the 2017 version] crossing over from Korea to America.”

This change of focus meant Park and Vernon had to write multiple new songs for the Broadway show. But for Park, who was also born in Korea and at one point wanted to work in the Korean music industry, KPOP has been a way to reconnect with her roots. With KPOP, Park will be the first Asian American woman to have a musical on Broadway.

“It’s so crazy to me that something like K-pop [the genre] is so universal,” she said. “Many of the songs from our show, half of the lyrics are in Korean. But so many people feel the emotions that were coming from the melody, the harmony, and the situation in the story. And it was moving to people, even when they didn’t quite understand the lyrics 100 percent. That was the power of the music, it really transcends language.”

Get KPOP tickets now.

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