KPOP MUSIC By Peter Filichia
Is KPOP the first cast album in which the booklet’s lyrics are printed in Korean?
No. With all the American musicals that have proliferated and profited in South Korea – EVITA and MAN OF LA MANCHA among them – their cast albums have long had bi-lingual liner notes and lyrics.
But yes, this two-language set of liner notes is a first for a musical that opened on Broadway prior to a Korean production. Nestled next to the English words to KPOP’s songs are the South Korean symbols known as Hangugeo.
(They’re called something else entirely in North Korea. But we needn’t concern ourselves about that.)
So, whether you learned your language in Seoul or Sedona, you’ll be right at home while listening and reading the lyrics co-written by Max Vernon and Helen Park, the show’s composer. Even the page with the staff’s credits has been replicated in Hangugeo, starting with lead producer Tim Forbes all the way down to “The producers wish to express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.”
Anyone who pays attention to what happens between West 41st Street and Lincoln Center knows that KPOP wasn’t on Broadway very long. At least the producers could console themselves in besting the original production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: 17 performances to Sondheim-and-Furth’s not-so-sweet 16.
Jason Kim’s libretto about the music and entertainment world’s ups and downs reiterated that no matter what Irving Berlin wanted us to believe about show business, everything about it is not appealing.
Add to that a subplot that forced a popular recording artist to choose between stardom and marriage, and you have a tale as old as thyme, parsley, sage and rosemary.
And add to that another story about Brad, a young man from Connecticut who understands the world of K-pop and is right for a group; however, its band members aren’t inclined to admit someone with an all-American background and who isn’t 100% Korean by birth.
(Here’s an irony: Zachary Noah Piser, who was cast as Brad, is actually Chinese on his mother’s side and Jewish on his father’s.)
Nevertheless, there’s more to be said about his talent; without it, he wouldn’t have been cast as the title character in DEAR EVAN HANSEN during the final year of its Broadway run.
The libretto isn’t a barrier to enjoying this original cast album. As was the case with the famous almost-Oscar-winning 1972 film of CABARET, each of KPOP’s songs is a performance number, done in a studio or theater. KPOP, stripped of the love-vs.-career plot as well as the show business and racial problems, turns out to be an original cast album with plenty of earworms.
By the way, let’s find a more pleasant way to define a tuneful and memorable song without including such a repulsive image as a worm. How about ear-flowers? Ear-chocolate? Ear-Patbingsu (in honor of Korea’s favorite dessert: shaved ice with sweet rea beans)?
Two people connected with the 2022 production certainly have an affinity for musical theater. The K-pop legend solely known as Luna (neé Park Sun-Yung) starred in the South Korean premieres of Legally Blonde (as Elle Woods), High School Musical (as Gabriella Montez), and a musical we have yet to see here and probably won’t, considering its agonizing growing pains: Rebecca.
Truth to tell, though, many more millions know Luna as the main vocalist and lead dancer in the group f(x). Billboard named the group’s 2013 album Pink Tape the greatest K-pop album of the last decade.
During KPOP’s Broadway run, Luna played MwE (pronounced Mu-wee), who had problems with her mother analogous to the ones that Louise experienced with Rose and Dolores Gray endured with her mom. So, when MwE sang “Still I Love You,” she was certainly singing about someone else.
It’s a lovely ballad that’s mostly sung in Korean, which proves the old adage that music is the international language. Nevertheless, Luna’s rendition of “Wind Up Doll,” which only occasionally veers into Korean, may be the one that you’ll want to hear repeatedly.
That brings us to composer and co-lyricist Helen (neé Hyunjung) Park. She doesn’t merely know K-pop but also MUST – meaning musical theater. Her interest in Broadway started when she was a tween; after her family had emigrated to Canada, she was soon cast in her school’s production of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. That was, as the opening song of that 1959 hit goes, many moons ago, but Park was already thinking about writing music. She also saw no reason why there shouldn’t be an opening for a female Korean musical theater composer.
So, for KPOP’s original (and more successful) off-Broadway run in 2017, Park created, as a lyric in the opening number goes, “a new category-a.” Her music is best described as a mixture of (in alphabetical order) electronica, folk, funk, hip-hop, jazz, nu metal, pop, rave, R&B, reggae, rock and techno.
Some of that is sung by female quintet called RTMIS – meaning Artemis, who’s better known as the Greek goddess of wild animals and chastity. On which facet of the deity does RTMIS most concentrate? One song, “Perfect,” would suggest the latter, but another, “Gin & Tonic,” hints that the former might emerge victorious.
Then there’s that male K-pop group known as F8. (Say it quick, and you’ll get the four-letter word it represents). That Brad will have problems in being easily assimilated can be gleaned from two of the songs in which F8 takes part: “Korean Man” and “This Is My Korea.”
So, file KPOP between your Yiddish-flavored recordings of THE KOSHER WIDOW and KUNI-LEML. Having another nationality’s cast album is a musical patbingsu.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.