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9/22/2017 Broadway Training, Gangnam Style - The New York Times

THEATER

Broadway Training, Gangnam Style


By DIEP TRAN SEPT. 19, 2017

When most Americans think of Korean pop music, colloquially called K-pop, what
comes to mind is usually Psys Gangnam Style a high-octane fusion of rap
verses, techno beats and pop hooks, complete with an ultrabright music video and
hypersynchronized dance moves. But the playwright Jason Kim is hoping to change
that.

Theres a desire to look at K-pop as goofy and strange and funny, Mr. Kim
said, referring to that 2012 crossover hit. Whats so wonderful is that its incredibly
diverse theres very serious K-pop and theres very goofy and funny K-pop.

This month, he is helping to introduce New York theatergoers to the varieties of


the genre with the world premiere of a musical called KPOP. Mr. Kim co-conceived
and wrote the book for the immersive show, which opens on Sept. 22 at A.R.T./New
York Theaters, in a coproduction by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company and
Woodshed Collective.

Though Mr. Kim was a writer on HBOs Girls and his play The Model
American ran this summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival, KPOP is his first
major New York theater production. The cast is massive 18 people, 17 of them
Asian, a rarity in the American theater world. The fact that were trying to make a
show with not only one Asian person, but with 17 I cant believe it, he said.

In South Korea, where K-pop is a billion-dollar industry, solo artists and bands
are created in a manner not dissimilar to the old Hollywood studio system. Aspiring

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9/22/2017 Broadway Training, Gangnam Style - The New York Times

singers learn how to sing and dance, and their personas are crafted by their record
labels. They can train for up to 15 years before they even step onto a stage.

KPOP aims to give the audience a firsthand look at such hit factories. Ticket-
buyers will get to tour a two-floor complex and watch as singers practice dance
moves, construct an album, are evaluated by their labels and try to make themselves
more palatable to American listeners. It culminates in a concert, with songs in both
Korean and English. Helen Park and Max Vernon wrote the music and lyrics.

Not every audience member will have the same experience or encounter the same
characters. So heres a chance to meet six KPOP performers. And true to the art
form, some are experienced, others are novices, and not all of them are Korean.

Jason Tam
PORTRAYS Epic, a performer in the five-member boy band F8 (pronounced
fate). Half-Korean, half-American, he was brought in to make the band viable in
America, said Mr. Tam, causing tensions with his bandmates, who are all Korean.

INSPIRED BY Justin Timberlake and Exo, a boy band that performs in


Korean and Mandarin.

KOREAN? No. Mr. Tam is Chinese, Hawaiian and Caucasian. He learned the
Korean songs in the show by recording himself on his iPhone and listening and
adjusting accordingly.

PREPARATION A weeklong cast boot camp, eight-hour days that included


body conditioning, swag exercises and learning four songs a day. Theres a lot of
drilling, more than in regular musical theater, said Mr. Tam, who has been on
Broadway in A Chorus Line, among other shows. They make it look so easy, but it
takes so much blood, sweat and tears that you dont see.

Jinwoo Jung
PORTRAYS Oracle, a member of F8 who objects to the groups attempts to be
more Americanized.

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INSPIRED BY The chance to pursue a lifelong dream. K-pop was something I


always yearned for and I was never brave enough to reach out to, he said, citing the
rigorous training. He became an actor instead.

KOREAN? Yes; Mr. Jung was born in South Korea and moved to the United
States five years ago.

PREPARATION Watches videos of live performances by Big Bang, a K-pop


boy band, before he goes on: I always want to have their attitude.

Deborah Kim
PORTRAYS XO, a member of the six-member girl group Special K. Shes the
rapper, like a bad bitch, Ms. Kim said.

INSPIRED BY For her KPOP audition, Ms. Kim performed a Korean rap
from the song Fan by the male hip-hop trio Epik High. I really liked that I was
cast as the rapper, because thats something Im interested in.

KOREAN? Yes; Ms. Kim was born in New Jersey and speaks Korean. What
helped me learn Korean was watching Korean dramas, Ms. Kim said. And driving
by Flushing and trying to read the signs really fast.

APPEAL OF THE SHOW It has made her realize that being something-
hyphen-American is its own identity and culture very beautiful and also very real.

Sun Hye Park


PORTRAYS Callie, a member of Special K who is told that she needs to lose
her accent in order to be more marketable to Americans.

INSPIRED BY Girls Generation, the eight-member girl group.

KOREAN? Yes; Ms. Park was born in South Korea and moved to the United
States five years ago.

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9/22/2017 Broadway Training, Gangnam Style - The New York Times

PREPARATION This is the first time Ms. Park has performed in a musical.
Im not really a singer and Im not really a dancer, she said. Every day, every
night, when Im back home, I always rehearse in front of the mirror. Its been
illuminating: I never thought about K-pop stars as really performers. Because they
are always being pretty and sexy, like dolls. But singing and dancing and being pretty
and everything its so hard!

Ashley Park
PORTRAYS MwE, a solo artist who at 26 is considered too old to be a pop star.

INSPIRED BY Beyonc (I feel totally barbaric using Beyonc in the same


sentence as compared to myself!) and BoA, a solo artist who sings both K-pop and
J-pop (Japanese pop).

KOREAN? Yes, though born in California. Ive never been to Korea, she said.

APPEAL OF THE SHOW After appearing on Broadway in Sunday in the


Park With George and The King and I, shes thrilled to be part of a show with a
large Asian cast where race is incidental: Its very subversive in that youre seeing all
these human interactions and drama, and you forget everyone that youre seeing is
Asian.

Ebony Williams
PORTRAYS Jenn, a choreographer for Special K.

KOREAN? No. The only non-Asian cast member, Ms. Williams also does
double duty as the dance captain for KPOP.

APPEAL OF THE SHOW Ms. Williams was a dancer on Beyoncs Formation


world tour. As an African-American woman, the struggles are so similar, she said.
A lot of the things that theyre doing in order to be perfect changing their faces
and having surgeries and things like that its so relevant here in America. Theres
such a similarity in cultures, even though theres so many differences at the same
time.

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9/22/2017 Broadway Training, Gangnam Style - The New York Times

A version of this article appears in print on September 24, 2017, on Page AR9 of the New York edition
with the headline: Behind the Scenes at a K-Pop Factory.

2017 The New York Times Company

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