A New Musical — And Its Audience — Grapple With Asian Identity, Through K-Pop : Code Switch The show's plot and very existence provoke larger questions around race, representation and casting.
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A New Musical — And Its Audience — Grapple With Asian Identity, Through K-Pop

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A New Musical — And Its Audience — Grapple With Asian Identity, Through K-Pop

A New Musical — And Its Audience — Grapple With Asian Identity, Through K-Pop

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now we're going inside a new interactive musical production based on Korean pop music. The premise is that leaders of a Korean music label have asked the audience to be part of a focus group. You take a tour of a K-pop factory where the stars train. You listen to them sing. You watch them practice their dance moves, and you witness heated debates over things like whether it's better to sing in Korean or English. You're supposed to help the music label understand how to make K-pop big in the U.S. and why that hasn't happened already. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team reports from New York.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: This "KPOP" show - it's my first interactive theater experience. I'm standing in a dark, large room with a stage in the middle. Other audience members are huddled around. We're not really sure what we've gotten ourselves into.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

JAMES SEOL: (As Jerry) Thank you all so much for agreeing to be a part of our little experiment.

CHOW: This is a guy named Jerry. He's the music label's marketing agent. He's played by the actor James Seol. He divides the audience - or, as he calls us, focus group - into smaller groups based on the color of our wristbands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

SEOL: (As Jerry) Orange wristbands, orange wristbands, raise your hands high.

CHOW: Different doors lead us to different rooms and different K-pop stars. And our first stop is the girl group Special K. We stand around them in a small room as their choreographer leads them through a tough dance routine in front of mirrors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

CHOW: They're good. It's easy to forget that this is theater and that they're not real K-pop stars. A little later, Jerry pops back into the room and turns to us, the focus group.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

SEOL: (As Jerry) Why do you think that Asian pop stars have had such a difficult time really breaking through and finding major, long-term success here in the States?

CHOW: For the most part, there is silence. People look around a little awkwardly. Then someone answers really softly, prejudice. Some people laugh a little. This type of audience reflection and interaction is exactly what the show "KPOP" is striving for.

JASON KIM: Audience members are saying out loud everything ranging from because you guys are weird or because you guys are "too stylized," quote, unquote - whatever that means.

CHOW: That's Jason Kim, a playwright who used to write for the TV show "Girls." He's also one of the creators of "KPOP." He was born in Korea and grew up in St. Louis where there weren't many other Asian-Americans.

KIM: Throughout that time, I thought of myself as a Korean person, as a Korean-American person, as a person who wants to be white, as a person who doesn't want to be white.

CHOW: It wasn't until Kim moved to New York when he started really grappling with his identity. And as he was finishing his MFA program in playwriting, he discovered he really, really loves K-pop, the genre. He loves its beats, how quirky and varied it is. So a few years ago, he set off to make a production that uses K-pop to ask questions about Asian and Asian-American identity.

In one scene, the focus group is brought into a surgeon's office, a nod to how big plastic surgery is in Korea. The doctor is consulting with a singer from the girl group. She's half Korean and half white. And she tells the surgeon she doesn't look Korean or, quote, unquote, "American."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'm wondering if you can make me look more like 70-30 or even 90-10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) In which direction?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) That's a good question.

CHOW: But at the heart of the show is the music. At the end of the night, all the focus groups convene in that same big room where we started. The stars burst onto the stage. People in the crowd cheer. Some begin dancing along. It's like we're at an actual concert. And in this moment, at a theater in New York City, K-pop has made it. Kat Chow, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KPOP")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) I'm finally free. And I have to run so hard 'cause I'm feeling...

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