The theatrical subgenre of “musicals about music” has been deeply plumbed — from 1960s R&B in Dreamgirls to the disfigured Pygmalion of Phantom of the Opera. Now Ars Nova, a production company known for discovering and grooming emerging talent, has entered the fray with their newest commissioned work: KPOP, an immersive musical about the inner workings of the Korean pop music industry. The result is a terrific experiential production that is a welcome addition to the genre.
To stage this show, immersive theater company Woodshed Collective, Ma Yi Theater Company, and Korean-born writer and playwright Jason Kim converted two floors of A.R.T/New York Theatres into the production and rehearsal spaces of the fictitious JTM Entertainment, a veritable K-pop “factory” owned by President Moon and his wife, former songstress Ruby. Audience members played the role of a focus group and were introduced to the inner workings of JTM by Jerry Kim, a high-strung Korean-American man tasked by Moon and Ruby with shaping JTM’s talent into something palatable to American audiences.
After the overzealous Jerry divided the audience into subgroups based on the colored wristbands we’ve been given at check-in, the focus group began. We toured the dance studio, the rehearsal space, and the personal “decompression” rooms of JTM’s most prominent artists.
Because the audience toured different spaces and interacted with different cast members at different times, the experience of the production varied for each group. Mine met characters like pop diva MwE, the women in the band Special K, vocal coach Yazmeen, and the in-house plastic surgeon Dr. Park.
We also spent a lot of time with the band F8 (pronounced “FATE”), who had their own issues: JTM had replaced four of the original eight members with the Korean-American heartthrob Epic, since he believed that would make them more marketable Stateside. Our task was to help F8 come up with a short list for their upcoming album, the first with their newly improved sound.
While working with F8, our group was further broken up according to the names written on our wristbands. I went with Timmy D, the rapper of the group. In his quarters, which looked like a Bedouin tent with sporadic elements of nerd culture, he only spoke Korean, using translation software to make himself understood. He told us that his favorite song from their long list was “Hanguknom,” as it was the only one that contained all Korean lyrics.
Speaking of songs, all 23 of the ones featured in KPOP — from MwE’s “Wind Up Doll” to Special K’s “Snail Cream Jingle” — are original numbers created by Max Vernon and Helen Park. “We really wanted to capture what K-pop music sounds like — this meticulously crafted, sort of futuristic sound,” Park explained in an email. “But in the end, our songs are a fusion of many influences that Max and I bring in, and taking that and making something cohesive and uniquely ours — that process itself felt very much like K-pop, [which] has evolved over the years with influences from a lot of different genres.”
Design-wise, KPOP’s sets present a good balance between a tongue-in-cheek kitschy display of K-pop aesthetic extravaganza and minimalism, which makes sense, since the performers need enough space to prance around. The corridors and the bar room/center stage were filled with highly saturated posters featuring JTM’s artists in campaigns for Korean brands.
The costumes, by Patricia Barsamian, reflect the same aesthetic. Save for diva MwE’s extravagant ensembles — such as a fur-trimmed white cape and a megastar-worthy “naked dress” — everyone wore fairly demure outfits. “In an effort to honor South Korean culture and style, we immersed ourselves in research surrounding existing K-pop bands,” said Barsamian. “Clothes are inherently connected to the people wearing them, so we wanted them to reflect each character’s unique backstory and arc, while unifying them as a group with a common visual aesthetic and story to tell.”