A Tribute to K-pop’s Broadway Takeover

The show may be over, but these three stars of ‘KPOP’ have lots to say about South Korea’s cultural influence, being an idol, and more

Words by Lauren W.

Mixed Asian Media: JoySauce is proud to present something very special—a partnership with the ultra talented team over at Mixed Asian Media. In JoySauce’s mission to cover stories from the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, we’ve always considered it incredibly important to include mixed AA+PI perspectives. Since their team already has that piece on lock, we’re delighted they were willing to join forces to help us share even more fresh, funny, interesting, irreverent stories each week. Take it away, MAM!

Creative direction: Lauren Nakao Winn; co-creative direction and styling: William Noguchi; hair: Isaac Davidson; makeup: Sarah Fiorello.

South Korean pop culture has permeated the American scene. BTS Army is around every corner, mothers across the country tearfully watch Crash Landing on You, and bathroom cabinets are full of Korean skincare favorites. The Korean wave is strong. It was only a matter of time before it washed over the Great (slowly getting less and less) “White” Way. The global phenomenon that is K-pop music took over New York City in the form of its very own Broadway musical this fall and played its final performance over the weekend on Dec. 11.

With music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon and book by Jason Kim, KPOP the musical introduced audiences to RBY Entertainment, a Korean record label about to make its big NYC debut. The label is home to a solo artist (MwE), the boy band (F8), and a girl group (RTMIS)—each with their own perspectives on the road to becoming idols. KPOP was first exhibited through an immersive Off-Broadway run at Ars Nova in 2017, where audiences were able to view and interact with each group’s story by moving through various rooms. Set on the thrust stage at Circle in the Square, the Broadway production was unable to transfer that interactive magic, but KPOP still flaunted the genre’s musical hooks, precise choreography, and captivating formations through concert-style production numbers.

Part of KPOP’s allure certainly lied in seeing hallyu stars on the Broadway stage—and there was no lack of Korean stardom in this cast. Luna, former member of the girl group f(x), captivated as the fictional idol, MwE. Kevin Woo (from the boy band U-KISS) dazzled as a standout in F8, Min (from JYP’s girl group MISS A) served authentic idol energy, and BoHyung (solo artist and former member of SPICA) delivered the vocals you expect from a K-pop star. JoySauce and Mixed Asian Media had the unique opportunity to collaborate on getting to know some of the cast’s K idols a little better. Kevin, Min, and BoHyung were able to step away for an exclusive photoshoot and interview on their journeys to K-pop stardom and Broadway. This interview was conducted before both KPOP announced its closing, and the release of a poorly-worded review from the New York Times. Although the show’s run was short-lived, global intrigue in K-pop music, celebrities, and stories will endure forever.

-Sam Tanabe

The K-pop landscape has changed drastically over the last 5-10 years. The biggest difference: K-pop used to stay in Korea. When you were actively promoting in your groups, did you ever think you could end up regularly performing in America, or was it unheard of?

Kevin: When I was active in U-KISS, our biggest fan base was in Asia, so stopping by North America during our world tour was a rare chance for us to meet our fans in the U.S. As a native Korean American, I never imagined that K-pop could become a household name in America as it is today.

Min: Miss A means Miss Asia, but my group members and I used to joke about it being Miss America, not Asia. At that moment, I did not know I would perform eight times a week on Broadway. Even if I wanted to perform in the U.S., it was hard to make it happen. I hope to perform a lot more here from now on.

BoHyung: It is very exciting and finally feels real. I still remember from the moment I auditioned for the show last year to this moment. I have so many great memories during rehearsals and feel proud of myself because I surely have been doing my best. I feel grateful whenever I see audiences enjoy the show and it’s nice to know I have a small part in making them happier.

Each era of K-pop is known and praised for different points of appeal: 4th Gen for intricate dance, 3rd Gen for balance of dance and vocals, and 2nd Gen (your era) for great vocals. It’s kind of perfect that three 2nd Gen K-pop stars are on Broadway. Do you bring any other 2nd Gen flair to your performances?

Kevin: I think our K-pop stars were truly meant for the Broadway stage. I’m still taken aback every night from their performance and delivery. With our intense training in K-pop, I think it led us to have a smooth transition to musical theater (including eight shows a week). We also love that a lot of our songs bring an essence of 2nd gen K-pop, as Helen was inspired by that era, and it brings out the best in us as that’s our strongest asset.

Min: Each generation has different characteristics and makes an effort in different ways. K-pop has been globalized, and it is now time to apply each generation's strong suit and perform on Broadway, doing our best.

BoHyung: History has been made on Broadway with Korean culture, story, songs, and casts. With the beginning of KPOP, I hope there will be more Korean shows on Broadway. I want to continue the legacy of K-pop artists who made history by doing my part at KPOP on Broadway. I hope that will open doors for the next generations who will continue writing history.

K-pop is celebrated by Asians of all backgrounds in the U.S. as a vehicle for representation. The media here isn’t Asian-dominated, so when we watch K-pop music videos, it’s amazing for us to see so many empowered Asians in one place. Does this experience resonate with you?

Kevin: Yes, this definitely resonates with me being born and raised in America. For me, K-pop was a safe place to be unapologetically myself. It was always a dream of mine to make it big in Korea and come back to America to inspire others who share the same dream as me.

Min: I spent my teenage years in the U.S., so I acknowledge that K-pop is celebrated by Asians of all backgrounds in the U.S. On the other hand, it’s very special to witness and experience the powerful impact of K-pop. K-pop is a genre that hugely impacts Asian people all around the world as well.

BoHyung: I did not know details about the impact on Asian people in the U.S., but I do think K-pop is an irreplaceable genre with Korean identity.

What has it been like entering into a cast and community of Asian American performers (not just Korean American)?

BoHyung: I still remember the first meeting with everyone in the production. It was the first time we met in person, but it felt very familiar as if we had known each other for a long time. They’re all open-minded, and I'm so thankful for them. I'm still struggling to communicate in English, but everyone is willing to help me. I really appreciate their kindness.

You all knew of each other from other entertainment and various overlapping schedules from your time as K-pop idols. How well did you know each other before this musical?

Kevin: I knew Luna, Min, BohHyung from our K-pop days. Luna and Min I knew since their debuts, and BoHyung I knew from promoting together on various TV shows. When I found out they were on board with this production as well, I instantly knew I made the right decision.

Min: We all were not close before KPOP, except I was with Kevin. Kevin and I have been close friends in Korea but I only said, “Hi” a few times with Luna. I was so relieved that Kevin was joining the cast and we could rely on each other.

BoHyung: I knew them since we all were K-pop idols in Korea. We were not that close then, but we have become very close now because we understand each other from our experiences as K-pop idols.

One of the numbers in the musical has a line about “electric shock,” a nod to a very famous f(x) song. Are there any other fun “easter eggs” for K-pop fans to look out for?

Min: Helen referred to a song by Miss A, “Bad Girl, Good Girl,” when she wrote “Gin & Tonic,” one of the numbers in KPOP. You can look forward to the cast recording of KPOP—it’s coming soon!

One purpose of this show is to expose American audiences to the seemingly harsh realities of the “K-pop Factory.” Young idols lose out on the typical teenage experience. Can you describe what it’s like to actually be in this industry and what you’ve learned from its demanding nature?

Kevin: I started my career when I was 15 and it’s difficult to share my whole experience in one answer, but all I can say is that it takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice and willpower to endure an industry such as K-pop. I’ve learned so many life lessons along my journey and one of them is my work ethic. I put all of my focus and energy into my craft and I want to continue to work harder to push boundaries. Last, but definitely not least, I have so much gratitude towards my fans and K-pop fans in general for their unconditional support and making all of this possible.

Min: It was hard for me to do training, be on a diet, and socialize with adults at a young age. I was always anxious about when to debut or be kicked out, so I recommend having another plan for younger folks. It is early enough, even after you finish school, to start training. For everything you gain, you lose something else. It’s inevitable that you need to sacrifice.

BoHyung: I started training when I was 20, which is much later than Luna, Min, or Kevin. However, I had seen friends who started training when they were little and felt bad for them for not having normal school life or not being able to live with their parents because of the training. They seemed to be invincible to survive the competition and relentless discipline and possess social skills, the spirit of independence, and self-reliance at a young age. Pros and cons, I think.

Published on December 12, 2022

Words by Lauren W.

Lauren W. is a contributor for Mixed Asian Media.

Words by Sam Tanabe

Sam Tanabe is a NYC-based actor and writer. Struggling to find his identity as a mixed race performer led him to help found Mixed Asian Media as the Managing Editor. You can find him around Manhattan with a bubble tea in hand, and online @tanablems.

Photography by Lauren Nakao Winn

Lauren Winn is a pop culture whackjob who works in fashion. She is a sucker for genre-meshed aesthetics, a textbook workaholic, a bonafide digital media queen, and the sum of many rotating hyperfixations. If you want to get on her good side, greet her with a LaCroix or follow her on insta @laurennakaowinn.