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On Sunday evening, the echoes of KPOP‘s final Broadway finale barreled up the stairs of W. 50th’s Circle in the Square Theatre and through its upper lobby, where the excited cheers of a stacked house spiked against the heart-pounding beat of “Blast Off” like an aural electrocardiogram.
For those not able to get tickets, a live stream captured that same swirl of noise — half cheers, half claps, all glowsticks — amid the sea of bodies pressed to the theater’s walls. The room’s buzzy energy mirrored both the messages captured for days by the show’s Instagram story, as well as what had awaited KPOP‘s composer Helen Park and several of its stars only the night before at a rally outside in the alley it shares with the Gershwin Theatre.
For its final weekend of shows on Broadway, KPOP got the kind of welcome something of this historic nature deserved, with fans jumping along to their favorite songs and clamoring for selfies with the cast. An effort years in the making that ended far too soon, Sunday’s closing performance saw KPOP‘s team become true Broadway rock stars.
Inside that same theater, where familiar names like Jeremy O. Harris and Lin-Manuel Miranda had visited for the show’s final set of performances after its closing was announced on Dec. 6, history was made once again for the first musical on Broadway about Korean culture. A post-show panel featuring AAPI Broadway and theater industry members Park and KPOP actor John Yi, playwrights Hansol Jung and David Henry Hwang, and Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s Pun Bandhu that was moderated by NBC Asian America’s Kimmy Yam, convened to celebrate the show’s existence on the New York stage.
“KPOP is historic because it’s only the third time in Broadway history that a musical about people who look like us was created by AAPI artists,” said Hwang, the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award.
“When I first started having plays produced, way back in 1980, the term Asian American was still not readily being used,” he continued. “White actors were still playing Asians in yellowface. So if you look at it from that arc, there’s been a lot of progress and I think we can celebrate the degree to which a proliferation of excellent Asian American playwrights and artists and actors have exploded onto the New York stage.”
Bandhu, an actor himself, also noted that there had been visible progress for Asian American performers, pointing to data published in the Special Tony-winning organization’s annual theater Visibility Report. “There has been, as David said, tremendous progress. We’ve been doing these reports for over 10 years now [and] when we first started, Asian representation was less than 1 percent on Broadway, so we’ve seen the increase,” he said. “Our last report had us at about 6 percent of all available roles.”
But both men also acknowledged that theater had yet to go far enough in creating opportunities for AAPI talent to grace Broadway’s stages. After noting that no less than 80 percent of performers writers, directors, and producers on the Great White Way were white (with producers being around 94 percent), Bandhu said “Asians have been outside” of the country’s conversations about race “in many ways.” The result is a “failing grade” when it comes to representation of Asian creatives and artists in the New York theater industry.
“In the past, theater companies would pat themselves on the back if they increase representation by 2 percent from the previous year,” he said. “What we learned from the pandemic, and this racial reckoning — this moment in time — is that change does not have to be incremental, and gradual. You can create a tidal wave of change and you can create the change that you want to see through concerted conscious effort.”
Hwang pointed to an industry struggling with how to reach theatergoers of color beyond Broadway’s existing audience to avoid closures like KPOP‘s and the recently announced Ain’t No Mo’, currently fighting to remain open. “When it comes to Broadway, we still need to do more work. We need to figure out how are we going to bring these audiences in,” he said. “This is a show that belongs on Broadway, that deserved a longer run. We need to figure out how to make BIPOC audiences feel welcome including seeing Ain’t No Mo.‘”
Jung, a Whiting Award recipient, playwright and director, expressed that so frequently, the industry’s approach to both creative and audience inclusion is reductive, and ultimately treated like a trend. Instead, she suggested production spaces stop treating artists as monoliths and meet them and their culturally and personally specific stories where they’re at.
“Create on it, around it, invite other non-queer or non-Korean non-Asian people into it and celebrate it, but as my human experience not as your idea of what my past life has been like that you’re suddenly now discovering,” she said. “Don’t discover me. Come and learn.”
For KPOP‘s composer Park and star Yi, the panel was particularly emotional, even before audience members stood up to share the impact of the show on them. That includes one white male fan who, like the rest of the musical’s growing and deeply passionate Broadway base, had seen it three times in its short run. After disavowing a critic’s review that KPOP‘s producers had addressed for exhibiting “casual” racism, he told the panelists, “there are those of us that get what you are trying to do.” Another audience member, a Taiwanese young woman with performing ambitions, burst into tears before asking, “How can we save this show?”
While on stage, Yi acknowledged the “tribulations” the show faced during previews, with cast members contracting COVID and swings, who the actor said he was “particularly proud of,” having to step in. “What I’ve learned over the course of eight years also is that being a part of any original new work is an extremely vulnerable process and the act of showing up to the arena and fighting every day takes incredible amounts of strength, courage and grit,” he said.
In addition to the dedication and talent of his cast members, Yi spoke about the show’s influence on his own understanding of his identity — a journey that he began in 2014. “This show has, over the course of eight years, helped me reclaim my Korean American identity and it’s largely due to having people like Helen on the creative team creating beautiful, beautiful things out of nothing,” the Korean Ameriacn actor, who grew up in a white-dominated neighborhood of Atlanta, said. “I’m just a completely different actor, artist and person because of the show and being able to be a part of a show that celebrates my own identity is something I’ll cherish forever.”
Park, who teared up several times during the panel, spoke about how joining the musical’s journey in its 2014 development days changed her as a female artist of color. “Ten years ago, when I started learning musical theater writing, I was trying to look at other writers that were successful. I tried to follow what they’re doing, studying all their work. That was definitely helpful, but I always felt like I had to be like someone else. Then this musical KPOP came along,” she said. “I have such deep love for this genre, but I was not ever thinking that that is something I can write for a musical. So that’s something that I can be really proud of — [doing] all the things that I wanted to do in a musical, especially with bilingual lyrics.”
The composer also touched on how her own journey to Broadway and ultimately what she hoped her presence achieved after coming up through a “very male dominated and white dominated” pipeline. “When I came to New York, it was like a boys club. All the men composers like to go get a beer and talk about work, and I felt a little bit isolated, for sure. But I chose to trust that the work can speak for itself,” she said. “I didn’t really care if I’m the first female Asian composer. I was just like, ‘I want to make other Koreans feel good, feel OK about that.'”
While KPOP‘s run at Circle on the Square was short-lived, Park says she isn’t willing to give up on Asians having more space on the Great White Way. “I won’t stop expressing that and hoping that more people will express their own stories and their own emotions and experiences through the medium of musicals.”
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