Advertisement

Broadway’s trailblazing ‘KPOP’ musical is abruptly closing. What went wrong?

Performers dance onstage.
The new Broadway musical “KPOP” is closing after just 17 regular performances.
(Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman)
Share
1

“KPOP” made history as the first Broadway musical centered on Korean pop culture and with songs from the first female Asian composer on Broadway. But nine days after opening to mixed reviews, the show’s producers surprisingly announced that it will take its final bow this coming Sunday, after just 44 preview performances and 17 regular performances.

What went wrong? How could a high-energy spectacle set amid a global phenomenon fail to find an audience? And did the New York Times’ negative review, which the producers described as “casual racism,” ultimately have a hand in ending its run?

The day after the show’s closing announcement, The Times spoke exclusively with composer Helen Park, book writer Jason Kim and producers Tim Forbes and Joey Parnes about why opening an original musical is particularly difficult at this time, how a 2017 iteration may have affected its Broadway reception, and where the production might pop up next. The following are edited excerpts from these conversations.

How are you feeling right now?

Advertisement

Jason Kim (book writer): I’m sad. When you’re trying to break new ground and do something different, it takes time to find your audience. There are many examples of long-running Broadway shows that took a little bit of time to find their footing, and I always knew we were going to be one of those shows.

Helen Park (composer): I’m definitely still in shock. Working on this show for eight years, it’s very personal to me. I don’t feel defeated, I feel angry. I feel like we never got a fair chance. I am pushing really hard for it to be archived this week [through the New York Public Library]. It’s an important mark in Broadway history, even though it’s short-lived.

South Korea has become a major exporter of culture. Its BTS, “Parasite” and now “Squid Game” have captured the world’s imagination and redefined how entertainment transcends borders.

“KPOP” is the rare musical that isn’t an adaptation or a revival. How tough has it been to open such a show in a postpandemic Broadway landscape?

Tim Forbes (producer): The originality of it is certainly what attracted [Parnes and I] to it. Our characters are Korean pop stars at a music label, so it’s basically a familiar backstage musical that’s freshly presented with a different sound. But these days, you’re competing with a lot of jukebox musicals, revivals, existing intellectual property and so on.

Advertisement

The audiences who come thoroughly enjoy the show, and they can hardly sit still during the concert at the end. Our problem is that we were not able to get enough of them to come. We had a couple of weeks where there was positive momentum, and then we had COVID disruptions and other illness disruptions and had to cancel some shows, which didn’t help.

Joey Parnes (producer): Business in this postpandemic environment is not behaving remotely like it did before the pandemic. I think some people have decided they’re not going to go to the theater anymore, or as often as they used to, and they’re choosing things they’re certain of, not that they’re going to take a chance on. So yes, “The Music Man” is doing $3 million a week, “Hamilton” is doing over $2 million a week, but the shows doing business at the top of the grosses list all have one thing in common: They are familiar, they’ve been playing a long time, or they’re about somebody that everyone in the universe knows and loves.

An actor sings into a microphone.
Luna stars in the musical “KPOP” as the fictional performer MwE.
(Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman)

The shows at the bottom half of that list, almost every single one of them is new or difficult material. We were at the bottom of that list for most of our short run, but we’re not alone. There are other shows that are struggling — maybe not quite as much as we did, but still pretty hard. That’s something that was not predictable when we said we were going to do this, and we had not anticipated it being quite as difficult as it turned out to be. We’ve been hoping for a turnaround, and we looked for additional revenue so that we could run a little longer and develop that audience.

Park: “KPOP” is brand new in every way. We have actual K-pop idols in our cast, but none of us are big Broadway names or superstars in America. And even though K-pop as a genre is known, people’s limited experience with the genre probably affected their preconceptions towards the show.

Whether we like it or not, telling a contemporary Asian story is still a risk. Asians are the most populated race in the world, there’s so many opportunities for different stories and yet, Asian stories onstage are just one or two things: stories of war and historical events and being saved by white men. But I am proud of all of our efforts to boldly tell a story that we believe is authentic and true to our experiences.

Looking back, is there anything you wish might have been done differently?

Parnes: I think we’re too close to it to be able to analyze what really happened, but none of the typical things that you would do to promote and advertise a Broadway show seemed to be having the effect it would normally have. We certainly did a lot of outreach to the Asian and Korean American communities because we thought that would be a bulwark of our audience. But we weren’t generating enough of those ticket sales.

Advertisement

Kim: There are a million different ways to market a show. In order for a show like this to be economically viable — and in order for the future of Broadway to succeed — we need to invite people into a space where traditionally they were not welcome. I was never “welcome” to theater as a young Asian person, and I only went anyway because I was inherently interested. I wish we had more time to figure out how to do that. It’s really hard to change the art without changing the system, and we couldn’t change it alone. That’s both the triumph and the tragedy, that we tried to do that and unfortunately didn’t have enough time.

Park: I don’t think it was the most successful marketing. Our ad agency is a Broadway-focused company, so I think it was targeted towards a traditional Broadway audience, but then we were trying to make the language and the design of our advertising true to the K-pop genre. But I don’t think it got through to K-pop fans as effectively as it should have. I think it needed time to figure out the best strategy, because it’s hard to ask anyone to do something new perfectly in the first try.

To many of its fans, K-pop culture is not only about fashion, food and entertainment, but also a community where marginalized groups can come together.

Forbes: We did pivot the marketing twice, as we began to learn more about who was coming and as we began getting new creative elements that strongly communicated the story elements and the energy and excitement of the show on social media.

Parnes: It took us a while to develop audio and video assets of the show, because we were supposed to do the show out-of-town in Washington, D.C. last December and had to cancel because of COVID. Not having had that time out-of-town — not to mention the experience of trying things out in front of an audience for a few weeks in a completely different city — and then the ability to adjust things in the months before Broadway — meant that we didn’t have the resources and assets that you would typically before a Broadway opening. We knew that was a risk, but we finally had the commitment of the one particular theater we wanted.

Advertisement

Forbes: It was not immediately obvious that it should come to Broadway; [after the 2017 off-Broadway run] we explored other unconventional venues for about a year, and we couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Four years ago, Joey and I agreed, as did the creative team, that Circle in the Square [the rare Broadway venue with a thrust stage] would be the ideal setting because the nature of the theater allows you to feel like you’re in an arena concert but in an intimate way.

A performance on a thrust stage before a large crowd.
“KPOP” resembles an arena concert at the Circle in the Square Theatre, the rare Broadway venue with a thrust stage.
(Emilio Madrid)

Changes were made to “KPOP” between its 2017 off-Broadway run and its Broadway debut. How do you feel about the critics who compared the two versions in their reviews of the Broadway production?

Kim: They were two completely different artistic endeavors, and I wish that we could have prepared press in the audience for that. Really, this [Broadway version] was more like an adaptation, it was not a remount. The world has changed so profoundly in the last five years that we didn’t have a choice but to reimagine the show.

Forbes: The off-Broadway version was great fun and it worked. Only a few thousand people saw that show, and many of them were critics, which was great because by and large there was broad-based enthusiasm. Earlier this summer, the thought quickly flickered in my mind: Will critics who liked that one be disappointed because this is different and linear and won’t seem as edgy, no matter what we do? When there were so many reviews that invoked it, I was a little surprised because it’s not relevant to an audience that might be coming now. It’s a little bit inside baseball and might have led some of them to not be able to take the show on its own terms.

Advertisement

Park: The immersive experience was fun because it had the audience moving through different rooms. But in my mind, and also in the minds of a lot of the other Korean creatives on our team, it wasn’t as authentic as it could have been, as embracing authenticity wasn’t the biggest priority for theater at the time. Back then, we were very conscious of the fact that K-pop as a genre had not crossed over into the United States, and we were very much trying to make sure it was palatable to the white theatergoer. Broadway was the perfect opportunity to be a little bit more bold with embracing our authenticity and to really zone in on what is relatable and human and universal about what these K-pop superstars go through.

Kim: What’s been interesting to me over the last couple of days is the discourse around the show, because it’s pretty bifurcated. There’s the older, predominantly male, white intellectuals on one side who didn’t care for the show very much. And then there’s a younger, more diverse crowd that cares for the show fervently. And it seems like they’re both doing that for the same reason, which is that this show is not necessarily about Asian Suffering, with a capital A and S. It’s not about infantilized men or hyper-sexualized women; it’s not fetishizing. There’s a narrative xenophobia that we have to overcome as Asian people telling our own stories.

Some press mentioned, “Why is it not an expose of the industry? Why did they not talk about plastic surgery and the abuse and labor that goes into creating a K-pop band [as the off-Broadway version did]?” We intentionally stayed away from that because that’s really not what we were interested in; really, we set out to do our own “A Star Is Born.” To me, it’s fascinating in that what people are yearning for from that 2017 version in a way is the white gaze that was problematic.

The producers responded to the negative New York Times review. Was that a factor in deciding to close the show?

Parnes: No. There was a time when a rave review from the New York Times would be the only thing you needed to keep a show open. But it doesn’t have that same effect anymore, and there are shows that have gotten rave reviews that are not doing business. We didn’t mind that Jesse Green didn’t like the show; we had a problem with the inappropriate language he used in his review and we wrote about it because we thought it was important to point that out.

Advertisement

A woman claps along to a performance.
Helen Park, the first female Asian composer on Broadway, at a “KPOP” performance.
(Emilio Madrid)

Park: Somehow, the use of Korean and Korean lyrics were such a big part of the criticism of the show. I thought that was weird because we always had Korean lyrics in our songs, and K-pop as a genre transcends language — the electronic music is so energizing — and I wanted to honor that. When I think back [to even before the off-Broadway production], there were definitely crossroads where I was like, “Do I just make it all English lyrics? How much Korean is too much Korean for the white American theatergoer?”

It can be a little bit shocking to hear Korean on Broadway, but we tried to make sure that, through the context, the audience would understand what’s going on. And in casting, we wanted people with this lived experience to come join us even if English is not their first language, and it’s actually even better because that’s who they are and their accents are beautiful. It’s another way our show did something new and authentic unapologetically, and I’m proud of that.

Theater critic Charles McNulty runs through his 2022 high points, including ‘The Inheritance,’ ‘Slave Play’ and, yes, a divisive ‘Oklahoma!’

What is the status of the cast album and any future “KPOP” productions?

Forbes: This may be the end of “KPOP” on Broadway, but we are hopeful that it’s not the end of “KPOP.” The cast album has been recorded, and there’s interest in other iterations in different contexts, whether it be in Las Vegas or internationally.

Advertisement

Parnes: I want a national tour. It would be difficult to bring the Broadway production on the road, so we’d have to rethink a lot of it. We’re determined to make that possible because it’s too good not to show, and the cast and creators deserve to have a platform where more people can see and hear what they’re capable of.

Kim: I hope that we find a home somewhere else. The most rewarding thing has been seeing the audience respond to the show — people dancing, screaming, shouting, cheering. It’s been wild night after night. So I do think there is an audience for this show, maybe it wasn’t necessarily on Broadway.

Forbes: There were 18 Broadway debuts in our show. There’s a wave of talent that has been seasoned here, who will be contributing to the American theater for decades to come. It will change how Broadway looks, both in front of the stage, and behind the stage. So that’s a good thing.

Park: The first time my son saw “KPOP” on Broadway, he loved the song “Halfway,” which is sung by the biracial character in our show and is about that feeling of not being quite connected to his own identity. My son is also biracial but he is only 6 years old, so he probably doesn’t know the rarity and the significance of being able to see yourself represented onstage as not a caricature, but a fully-fleshed human with real and complex emotions. I’m glad that the people who did come see the show might have gotten to experience that, possibly for the first time.

The thing that is bothering me is the possibility that, because we’re closing, fellow Asian creatives will think that the only way to survive on Broadway is to compromise authenticity, to cherry pick what a white audience wants or what the Broadway gatekeepers and critics like. That would make me so sad. Even though this was a short-lived show on Broadway, I hope this is instead the beginning of more bold, honest storytelling by more diverse voices.

Advertisement

The cast of "KPOP" stands onstage.
The cast of “KPOP,” which includes 18 Broadway debuts.
(Emilio Madrid)


Advertisement