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How Helen Park became the first Asian woman songwriter on Broadway
As a Korean songwriter, Helen Park never saw herself on Broadway. Not that she didn't have the talent or the drive—she was a standout in NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program (I know because we were classmates). But no Asian woman had ever written a musical that made it to the Great White Way. "I couldn't even dare to dream of it," she admits.
But that didn't stop her from trying. At NYU, she met fellow songwriter Max Vernon, and after graduation they connected with book writer Jason Kim to create KPOP, an immersive backstage musical about the Korean pop industry that was a critically acclaimed smash Off Broadway at Ars Nova in 2017. Now, after five years of reinvention, the show has arrived at the Circle in the Square Theatre, making Park the first Asian woman songwriter on Broadway. And she's making history with a musical that celebrates her homeland's biggest cultural export this century.
The bops for KPOP were planted during their time at NYU, where Park and Vernon played with content and form, breaking down the boundaries between Broadway and pop. Not everyone was a fan. When they wrote a song for a masterclass led by Michael John LaChiusa, Vernon recalls a professor saying, "'We do not write pop here. We write musical theatre!' I think that made Helen and I feel kind of defiant. Why can't it be both?"
Initially, Vernon was invited to pen songs for the workshop of a K-pop musical by Woodshed Collective, which coproduced the musical's Off-Broadway incarnation with Ma-Yi Theater Company and Ars Nova. Vernon invited Park to join the project, and she brought on fellow NYUer Sujin Kim-Ramsey to serve as musical director. The three have been involved with KPOP ever since.
Park and Vernon recognized that KPOP was an ideal showcase for their hybrid style, but they worried about the storytelling. "You want it to feel like pop music, but there's limitations in how much you can push story, how much you can really get into character development," Vernon explains. "People are not going to sing their emotions in soliloquy in a pop song."
Their solution was inspired by musicals like Dreamgirls in which the characters sing diegetic pop music. Within the reality of the show, they are performing songs, but the numbers are packed with insightful subtext.
Park points to "Wind Up Doll" in KPOP as an example. On the surface, it's a love song performed by rising star MwE (played by real-life K-pop idol Luna). But it also explores the pressure she feels to be perfect. Similarly, "Halfway," sung by Brad (Zachary Noah Piser) from the fictional boy band F8, is superficially about a commitment-phobic lover. But underneath, the character is struggling with being a mixed-race man.
Park views KPOP as an exploration of dualities: Korean versus American identities, pop music versus show tunes, the machine of stardom versus having a life. The score, with its bilingual lyrics and layered meanings, enhances those themes.
KPOP has undergone a stunning revamp on its journey to Broadway. It has an overhauled book about the behind-the-scenes drama at a make-or-break K-pop concert, some new songs and an overwhelmingly new Asian cast, including 18 performers making their Broadway debuts. The world has also changed drastically over the past five years. Thanks to popular groups like BTS, K-pop is now a well-known global phenomenon. Broadway endured a pandemic and survived a shutdown. And America has experienced a horrific wave of anti-Asian violence that, sadly, continues to this day.
That last development in particular fueled Park's desire to share authentic Asian representation on stage. "A lot of the Asian hate sentiment was because people haven't seen much of the diversity and the depth and the complexity of Asian people, which helps create empathy," she says. "I think our show, hopefully, is opening people's hearts to the Asian community."
Unlike many other Broadway musicals with Asian characters (see South Pacific, Allegiance and Miss Saigon), KPOP doesn't focus on trauma or war. None of the characters are victims or play into stereotypes, and their struggles with perfectionism, prejudice and workaholism are relatable. "I feel like there was a lot of cultural resonance with me and my family," says Vernon, who is Jewish and nonbinary. "At any moment, people can discriminate against you; they can take whatever you have away from you. The best defense you have against that is your work ethic and what you produce."
Perfectionism is a big issue in the show as well as in South Korean culture. Park describes her native country as a divided nation with a history of being invaded and a strong survival instinct. Kim-Ramsey, who was also born in South Korea, agrees. "Since I was very young, I was always taught: You have to win. You have to be perfect," she says.
In KPOP, MwE trains to become a K-pop idol from a young age, which impacts her relationships with loved ones. As mothers of young children, Park and Kim-Ramsey understand what that's like as their musical baby takes up so much of their time. But along with the struggle and sacrifices comes elation.
"I wanted to capture the striving for excellence that is so prominent in the actual K-pop machine and industry," Park says. "I didn't want to make it seem like I'm commenting on it in a negative light. That desire, that ambition, it can be both very joyous and tortuous."
In the decade since NYU, Park has learned to embrace the dualities within her own life. She no longer feels embarrassed about her love for pop music or questions whether there is a place for Asian songwriters on Broadway.
"What I'm doing makes my voice unique, and I can be proud of that," she says. "I think that's what I would want to say to myself from ten years ago: Believe in yourself and don't compare yourself with others."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for KPOP. Go here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.
Sarah Rebell (she/her) is an arts journalist and musical theatre writer. Bylines include American Theatre, Hey Alma, Howlround, The Interval and TheaterMania. She is a National Critics Institute Fellow. Follow her at @SarahRebell. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: the cast of KPOP. Photo by Matthew Murphy.