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Luna, as MwE, in Circle in the Square’ production of KPOP.

Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman




By Deirdre Donovan



Of all the shows opening on Broadway this season, KPOP is the most groundbreaking.  Not only does it become the first musical ever about Korean culture on Broadway, but KPOP features Korean representation in the creative team and onstage as well.  Written by Jason Kim and directed by Teddy Bergman with music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon and choreography by Jennifer Weber, it truly goes down in the history books in big bold capital letters.


For those who might need to get up to speed on KPOP, it is both a joyous celebration and investigation of the popular Korean music genre that draws on pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, experimental, and dance.  It presents razor-sharp dancing, mellifluous melisma riffs, and sentiments that range from the bouncy light to the disturbingly dark.  No, you don’t need to understand Korean to enjoy this musical.  Even though the show employs some Korean dialogue and lyrics, it serves more as a savory spice than its meat.


Those who had the great good luck of seeing KPOP in its Off Broadway version in 2017 (Unfortunately, yours truly missed it!) might not recognize it in its glitzier Broadway iteration. The earlier production, staged by Teddy Bergman and produced by the Ars Nova in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective, was an immersive show that imagined the audience as members of a focus group who, as arbiters of American taste, migrated in small cohorts from room to room and were provided peeks of K-pop and the sacrifices of its young artists.




The cast of KPOP at Circle in the Square

Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman


Unsurprisingly, the Broadway version is bigger, louder, and flashier.  Although it’s still directed by Bergman, it has changed in two significant ways:  It’s no longer an immersive experience; and the narrative has been significantly rebuilt.


The story now presents a back-stage look at several K-pop groups and a rising star who have gathered together to film a spectacular one-night-only concert.  But, as they get down to business,  there are cultural and personal issues that surface that create all kinds of complications and put the concert in question.


Front and center in the story is K-pop impresario named Ruby (Jully Lee), who is the driving force behind the concert, the Big Cheese presenting a triptych of K-pop acts: There is the five-woman RTMIS (pronounced Artemis) troupe; the eight-man F8 (pronounce Fate) group, and the diva MwE (played by the real-life K-pop star Luna).  Ruby took the orphan MwE under her wing at the tender age of nine, grooming and mentoring the girl in hopes of making her a big name in K-pop.


But, in spite of Ruby’s all-consuming efforts to advance MwE’s talent, she now finds that MwE, now a teenager, is yearning for freedom.  Much of the dramatic tension in the musical, in fact, comes from the unraveling relationship between Ruby and MwE.  Indeed, MwE expresses her resentment toward her mentor in the song “Wind Up Doll” in Act 1: “You push the gear/Touch me that way/You wind me up like clockwork/and I obey . . .” 


And that’s not all.  MwE’s childhood friend Juny (Jinwoo Jung) materializes and tries to persuade her to stop performing professionally and begin a more stable life with him.  When Ruby learns of Juny’s plan “to rescue” MwE, she immediately reminds MwE that she is famous and can’t just fall in love like everybody else.  Or as she arrogantly puts it: “MwE, do you see this man?  He is a civilian.  You are famous.” 


Okay, this isn’t very original material when it comes to a musical.  But it does effectively underscore MwE’s deep hunger for affection and need for a more balanced life out of the limelight.




Real-life K-pop star Luna, as MwE in KPOP at Circle in the Square.

Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman



When it comes to the songs, there isn’t one that truly raises the roof.  But the majority of them are catchy and upbeat, counterpointed by a few subdued and sober ones. There’s the opening ensemble number, “This is my Korea,” performed by both RTMIS and F8, that’s designed “to wow” us and let us know that “the future’s standing right in front of us.”  The song “Still I Love You” is an homage to Mwe’s mother who abandoned her as a child.  Act 2 brings us “Amerika,” performed by F8, which expresses the love-hate relationship that exists between South Koreans and Americans.  And the final number, “Blast Off,” sung by RBY artists, predictably ends the show on a positive note.


Enough about the songs.  What’s a musical without some good actors to anchor it?  The two standouts in KPOP are Jully Lee and Luna as Ruby and MwE, respectively.  Lee is spot on as the impresario who is pouring all her energies into making MwE surface as an artist worth her salt; and Lunar is altogether convincing as the up-and-comer MwE.


On Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s ingenious thrust set that expands and contracts to accommodate the action, we can watch Ruby overseeing RTMIS, F8, or MwE as they attempt to perfect their craft.  Yes, it’s ultra high-tech, and as lit by Jiyoun Chang, glaringly bright.  But, that said, Evansohn’s set does allow for quicksilver transitions between scenes, keeping the show moving at a brisk clip.


Added to this are the multimedia screens (projection design by Peter Nigrini) that can show video feeds of the backstage action.  In fact, one of the most dramatic moments in the musical is when the cameraman Harry (Aubie Merrylees)

eavesdrop on Ruby and MwE’s private conversation backstage and gets found out by Ruby.


A shout out to costume designers, Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, for the eye-catching sequined outfits that allow the performers to execute their intricate dance movements.  They are the happy marriage of function and design.


The problem with KPOP is that it seems more like a concert than a musical with a story throughline.  As Ruby works to pull off her one-night-only fantasy event, we get to watch the K-pop artists as they polish their acts in normal Korean fashion.  But, except for MwE’s romantic entanglement and the above-mentioned camera man Harry (Aubie Merrylees) overstepping himself, KPOP is essentially 18 songs that have been strung together like pearls on a necklace.


KPOP will surely be remembered for putting Korea on Broadway’s theatrical map.  Too bad it didn’t linger longer on the Great White Way.


Closed on December 11, 2022.

At Circle in the Square, 235 W 50th St, Manhattan.

For more information, visit

Running time:  2 hours; 15 minutes, including intermission.