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K-Pop gets the Broadway treatment in a new musical about the industry

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The South Korean cultural phenomenon K-pop gets the Broadway treatment when a new musical simply called "KPOP" opens this week. Reporter Jeff Lunden spoke with the creators of the show.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Shortly after the start of "KPOP," the audience is immersed in a high-energy performance of a song called "This Is My Korea." A girl group with five singers comes on stage to an electronic accompaniment and first sings in Korean.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing in Korean).

LUNDEN: Swaying their arms and hips and wearing colorful short skirts, the singers switch over to English like in many K-pop songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) It's my story, and I'm writing it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) In my own style, like I feel like it.

LUNDEN: Then a boy band with nine singers comes on doing the same material, but with macho, smoldering movements.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Singing) My story and I'm writing it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) In my own style, like I feel like it.

LUNDEN: And then they all sing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) This is my Korea. This is my story-ya (ph). A new category-ya (ph) to make you dance and wave your hands.

LUNDEN: Even though "KPOP" is an unconventional musical - there are no traditional solos or duets where characters sing their emotions - director Teddy Bergman says "This Is My Korea" functions like an old-fashioned Broadway opening number.

TEDDY BERGMAN: There are many ways in which that song is like our version of "Tradition" from "Fiddler." Like, it introduces a set of a kind of big thematic banner for the evening.

LUNDEN: "KPOP" is a kind of MTV "Behind The Music" story about a fictional Korean label presenting a concert in New York City. Between the dynamic performances of spot-on songs in different styles with outrageous costumes, the audience gets a glimpse inside the pressure cooker K-pop factory, where performers are driven to perfection, often at personal sacrifice.

JASON KIM: When I was really interested in going into this was the psychology behind an international star.

LUNDEN: Korean-born author Jason Kim has written the show's script, which he says takes some tropes from Korean television melodramas.

KIM: What do people like BTS - what do people - CL - what does she think when she gets up in the morning, and what is her day-to-day, and what is it like before she goes on stage? And what does she think of her stage performance? And how does that affect her relationships, and etc., etc.?

LUNDEN: The show has several performers who are actual K-pop idols, including Luna, who plays the show's star, MwE. Luna has also appeared in musicals like "Legally Blonde" in Korea. Director Teddy Bergman says she brings authenticity and vulnerability to the show.

BERGMAN: She's one of those people who has that very rare gift, I think, of being almost, like, transparent on stage. Like, you can just read everything that's going on with her effortlessly. And as a singer and dancer, she's just virtuosic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Singing) Turn it in, turn away, all the way, yeah. No turning back, 'cause you sparkle like (inaudible) shine in my heart, you superstar.

LUNDEN: One of the show's songwriters is Helen Park, who was born in South Korea and loved K-pop as she was growing up. She's the first Asian woman songwriter on Broadway and has created all the electronic backing tracks, which a small offstage band plays along with. Park says the score reflects the wide variety of K-pop styles.

HELEN PARK: Every musical moment, I think, is kind of different from each other. And we have ballads, we have reggaeton, we have new disco, we've got, like, progressive house. We've got everything in the pop medium.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (Singing) Fake it till you like me, like you like it in America, America, America.

LUNDEN: As catchy as the music is, Max Vernon, who has co-written the score with Park, says the authors have tried to make the songs reflect the emotional states of the characters on stage. One song, called "Wind Up Doll," is performed by MwE after she's rehearsed with an abusive choreographer.

MAX VERNON: That song is so sparkly. It's so effervescent. It puts a smile on your face, and it is like this narrative of, like, a doll that you buy that is full of joy and full of life. But if you actually listen to the lyrics, they're pretty sinister. You know, it's like, you push the gear, touch me that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (Singing) You wind me up like a quirk and I'll play. Going to be your toy if you want to play. So take me off the shelf and take me away. I wanted to make you happy...

LUNDEN: At times the audience at "KPOP" behaves as though it was at a concert, not a Broadway show. People whoop and cheer and move along to the music, says Helen Park.

PARK: K-pop as a genre and K-pop as a phenomenon I think is so welcoming. It's inclusive. It's inviting.

LUNDEN: And fans of K-pop music learn the dances from videos, then post their own versions on social media. Choreographer Jennifer Weber says some of the musical's fans are already doing the same.

JENNIFER WEBER: It's been so cool to see that in our audience - like, to watch people are already starting to do dance covers of things and to, like, become fans of the groups themselves.

LUNDEN: In "KPOP" the musical, life is imitating art is imitating life. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (Singing in Korean). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.