Korean popular music has been a part of American music since the late 1950s when The Kim Sisters performed on Ed Sullivan, but modern K-Pop is rooted in idol bands and the spread of South Korean culture since 1990. While the pop hits derive big dividends in Asia — contributing more than $3 billion per year to Korea’s economy — in the United States, K-Pop has largely been relegated to YouTube videos with occasional viral breakouts. In contrast, the K-Pop industry highly values Korean American talent with native English skills (K-Pop songs often feature English hooks). Industry-leaders like S.M. Entertainment hold open casting for new stars in major US cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This space where music meets identity is at the heart of KPOP, a new immersive theater performancewhich opened off Broadway in early September. In the show, the audience acts as a focus group to help a music producer understand why his Korean pop-stars haven’t made an impact on the American market. In the process, theater-goers are asked to look into the eyes of young Asian American performers and tell them how they can change to become more palatable for a US audience. It is an interesting question for a genre that is inherently a mash up of Eastern and Western styles, shaped by American pop culture and the continuous US military presence in South Korea.
Created by Korean American Jason Kim, a former writer for the HBO series Girls, and composer-lyricists Helen Park and Max Vernon, KPOP looks at the lines between being Asian, American, and Asian American through a cast of predominately Asian actors. That is a rarity in American theater, and while KPOP features established talent like Ashley Park and Jason Tam, the production had to branch out to recruit its cast – like Harvard applied mathematician Jiho Kang who was spotted on YouTube after competing on a reality television program in Seoul.
KPOP, commissioned by Ars Nova in association with Ma-Yi Theater + Woodshed Collective, sold out its initial shows and announced an extended run through Oct. 21.
Jake Howry is a Georgetown University Graduate Student and Intern at the East-West Center in Washington