Screenwriter, producer and acclaimed Beyoncé historian Jason Kim is best known for his work on shows like Girls, Divorce, Love as well as Barry which earned him an WGA award as well as an Emmy nomination. He also signed on to write a Crazy Rich Asians spinoff and has snatched an overall deal with with 20th and Onyx Studios at Disney.
Then there is his magnum opus KPOP which makes its official Broadway opening on November 20 in the Circle in the Square theater. Kim, who has an MFA in playwriting, has been working on this for nearly a decade and he is just now seeing the fruits of his labor — and it started when he was working as a researcher at The New Yorker. As an English major, he had his dream job at the prestigious publication and was on that “good boy immigrant path”. All seemed stable — and then he was emotionally sideswiped.
“In 2008, everybody was having a really tough time,” Kim told DIASPORA. “It was a time in New York when people were walking down the street with banker boxes and tears in their eyes because they had just been fired. It just felt sort of apocalyptic, especially within the business districts. I was working in that huge Conde Nast building on 42nd Street and I came down and a tourist or something, asked me to take a photo of their family and I had a radical breakdown. I don’t know why.”
He continued, “I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m having my Carrie Bradshaw moment’ — and I fully did. I had a full on nervous breakdown and I quit my job in the next week and I went on the government scholarship. I went on unemployment. I started screenwriting for the first time. I’m really thankful for that breakdown, actually. I walk by that street almost every day going to the [Circle in the Square] theater, which is hilarious.”
Kim describes himself as a “closeted writer” and credits his late grandmother for his storytelling skills. His grandmother would regale him with so many stories and as a result, Kim became fascinated with storytelling which led to writing plays and then his successful TV writing career — but gestating throughout was KPOP.
The musical is currently in previews but it is no stranger to the scene. Kim wrote the book for KPOP and alongside Helen Park and Max Vernon, who worked on the music and lyrics. An earlier version of the musical premiered Off-Broadway in 2017 and it won a Richard Rodgers Award, three Lucille Lortel Awards, including Best Musical. Even so, the musical that was seen in 2017 isn’t the one that is currently on Broadway.
“When we first started the project pretty much a decade ago, the world was incredibly different,” said Kim. “This was pre-Parasite, pre-Black Pink, pre-BTS — there was a tremendous amount of setup and exposition I had to do. I essentially had to teach the audience what K-pop was — which I don’t have to do anymore. It was artistically freeing.”
Kim said the 2022 version is a brand new piece when it comes to the script but a lot of the music remains the same. “It was one of those things where once we knew that we were going to Broadway, we immediately started having to think about audience demands and expectations because Broadway is nothing without an audience.”
KPOP follows a K-pop diva, a K-pop girl group and a K-pop boy group as they put everything on the line for a special one-night-only concert. While doing so, they face all kinds of struggles that put one of the industry’s hottest labels. The musical stars a mix of real-life K-pop stars and Broadway stars including Luna, Julia Abueva, BoHyung, Major Curda, Jinwoo Jung, Jiho Kang, Amy Keum, James Kho, Marina Kondo, Eddy Lee, Joshua Lee, Jully Lee, Lina Rose Lee, Timothy H. Lee, Abraham Lim, Min, Kate Mina Lin, Aubie Merrylees, Patrick Park, Zachary Noah Piser, Kevin Woo, and John Yi.
The cast is massive and the show is energetic but as Kim said, the show isn’t what it once was. In fact, it probably won’t be the same every night — especially during previews. I had the opportunity to watch KPOP during its opening week of previews and although it was a delightful experience, it probably won’t be the same experience if I watched it again in January. Kim said that the constant changing from the show night after night is both incremental and massive at the same time, especially during the preview process.
“If you make one small change — if you have an actor cross at a different point in the scene — you have to relight them.. and the mics have to work differently…and the audio pickup has to be different… the queuing has to be different for stage,” Kim explained. ” I mean there’s just layers upon layers of change and it makes a crazy domino effect so it’s funny because it really feels like I’m driving a cruise ship because you can try to spin it and steer it as fast as you want, but that thing is not going to move until it moves.”
He continued, “If we rehearse a new scene on Tuesday during the day, and we’re not ready to put it in yet, it might not go in that day and so they will have to do the older version of the scene. Sometimes people get confused and one person is doing one version, one person’s doing the new version and then you don’t put it in until that Thursday. It’s a fascinating process. It keeps you honest.”
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Kim pointed out that the audience is also a cast member because you never know how a show behaves until you put it in front of people. That said, he learned so much on the first day of previews. Things that he thought were clear were the exact opposite and things that you thought were unclear were overexplained. “You have to read the energy in the room and then make adjustments without changing too much just for the audience. Once you embrace the uncertainty, it’s great. But that uncertainty is a fucked up thing. It’s a real difficult.”
After spending so much time in the TV space, Kim said boomeranging back to his theater roots after not having done it for a handful of years has freaked him out because as a writer for stage, you can’t hide anything. “I remember watching a rehearsal run through and thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t yell cut’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I actually can’t edit around your flub.'”
On the flipside, Kim brought some of his TV sensibilities to the theater. “The thing that TV keeps you honest about is having to throw away material and having to come up with it in very, very tight time crunches,” said Kim. “You could plan a season as much as you want for years in advance and then you get on set and it’s like, ‘okay, that deli where we were supposed to shoot the scene is on fire so now we have to change plans’ so you have to be really adaptable. That’s something that I really love in theater. I could stay in a rehearsal process forever because you just get to fly around.”
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It only makes sense that Kim is a K-pop fan himself, otherwise, the wild, rabid K-pop fanbase would be coming for him.
When Kim moved to the United States, K-pop wasn’t as accessible as it is now. You see, for a certain generation of people — myself included — you had to physically purchase CDs or cassettes in order to the music you wanted. You can also request songs on the radio or just wait until your favorite song came on. When Napster came along, that changed the game. Even so, K-pop albums were still hard to come by for Kim.
“They didn’t sell K-pop CDs at the Target in St. Louis, Missouri in 1997,” laughed Kim. He did admit that he had to get his fix of K-pop through other means which may or may have not been “illegal”.
“I remember listening to Epic High, which is a rap trio at the time and I think I was in middle school and people were like, ‘What the fuck is that?!’,” said Kim. “My friends would hear the music and made it seem like I had smuggled in some kind of weird foreign animal, which in a way I had.”
The exact moment for the stateside K-pop wave can’t be pinpointed. Whether you like it or not, some say that Psy’s “Gangam Style” helped break down for door to K-pop which has now since been wildly popular with BTS, Black Pink and numerous other groups — but my question is, “Why are white people into K-pop?”
“I don’t know. It’s fascinating to me and I sort of love it,” responded Kim. “There’s something kind of unprecedented watching Asian people take up space in that way.”
In particular, we talk about the men of K-pop and gender bending. In the Broadway musical and in the K-pop blur the gender lines of the boy band image in a way that glam rock bands like Poison and Cinderella could never get away with. It has become a form of sexualization of the Asian male, a demographic that is often desexualized.
“I’m obsessed with what K-pop has done to understanding of gender, beauty standards, makeup, hair, fashion and self-expression,” explained Kim. “The culture around K-pop that K-pop forms is to me equally as fascinating as the music itself. I just remember really clinging onto K-pop male beauty standards when I was growing up because everybody made fun of me for being feminine and too ‘girly’ and the whole time I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m trying to emulate male K-pop stars.”
As KPOP subtly showcases the gender-bending of Asian male beauty standards and identity, it also puts the lens on the infighting and unconscious (or blatant) bias that happens within the Asian community — specifically when it comes to East Asians vs. Southeast and South Asians.
In KPOP, Zachary Noah Piser plays Brad, one of eight members of the K-pop band, F8. He is the newest member as he has come into replace a longtime member that had to exit the group. He is an outsider from all accounts. His skin is darker and he clearly is not Korean. His skin is not as fair and even his style isn’t as glamorous as his fellow F8 members. Throughout the musical, it is clear that his bandmates do not want him there. At first, I thought it was coincidental that he looked different but my instinct about him being a blatant outsider was right.
“That was absolutely intentional,” admitted Kim. “One of the things that I wanted to explore was identity issues within the K-pop framework, which has always been fascinating to me. Because in K-pop bands… if you have a Korean version of a band, there can also be a Japanese version and a Chinese version. Sometimes the members switch out but that doesn’t always involve South and Southeast Asians. It’s primarily East Asian… but then a lot of people don’t even know that Lisa from Black Pink is not Korean. She’s Thai.”
Kim said that there are a lot of racial dynamics within K-pop itself and he really wanted to tell a story about race and racial tension in the US but do it in this setup and in this framework. “I always feel like anything with race tends to be incredibly serious which I obviously understand why because it’s an incredibly serious topic and it resonates very heavily upon many people but I just wanted to set a challenge for myself. I wanted to talk about this topic but also have fun.”
Asian and Asian American have found visibility in film, TV, stage and media, but that is only the first step. However, with this new spotlight, comes obstacles as the bigger Asian diaspora fight for what “authentic Asian representation” is. As seen in KPOP, it can lead to in-fighting and crab mentality which hinders substantial progress in the diaspora.
“I talk about this all the time with my Asian friends and been a source of heartbreak for me on a handful of occasions,” he said. “Because as we grew up, I don’t know how you felt, but I was always seeking community and I always wanted more Asian friends. I didn’t want to be criticized for the Asian things that I did by my Asian friends but that’s what ended up often happening. The self loathing and the cannibalization and all of it was just really impactful for me growing up. I think people are unlearning it — especially our generation. But I’m like, man, we could be so much more.”
In terms of his work for representing the Asian community in TV, people, especially Asians, tell him, “Don’t make us look bad.” To which he responds: “What does that mean?” Do you mean don’t make a bad TV show? Because I’m not setting out to do that.”
He continued, “I think what they mean actually is don’t make Asians flawed. Don’t make us complicated. Make us seem lovable. Make us seem perfect. Make us seem like the model minorities. I take real issue with that actually, because that exists. That mentality exists because of scarcity, because we never get Asian stories. My response is we need a thousand Asian stories where people are behaving badly. Where we could be messy.”
“The Asian people I know we are insane. We fight. We’re messy. We’re horny. We’re messy. We’re disgusting,” he laughed.
As Kim said, KPOP will see incremental and massive changes as it zeroes in on its official November 20 opening date at the Circle in the Square theater. KPOP may not be horny or disgusting, but it does certainly showcase the mess and struggles Asians face in and outside of their community — all dressed in the Swarovski crystal-studded vocals, sharply choreographed fashions, and flawless skin and lacefronts of the K-pop world.
With KPOP in full Broadway mode in a couple of weeks, a big screen adaptation of the true crime book The Flawless and of Michelle Zauner’s New York Times best-seller Crying In H Mart, Kim is firing on all cylinders. At this moment in his career, he brings it back to his grandmother, who passed right before the pandemic.
“It was a really tough time for me because she was the origin of all of my ‘higher purpose’ questions about myself,” he said. “After she died, I had this realization… I worked primarily in white spaces; primarily telling other cultures’ stories; primarily dipping into other backgrounds that are entirely unlike mine and that had to change. I just had this revelation. My grandma’s the most fascinating person I know and was the funniest person and was the most complicated person. I was like, I have to show her and people like her. I have to make things that she would be able to enjoy and watch without having to work.”
Kim added, “I think that’s where I’m at in my career…that’s been my North Star and it feels like a first step towards that.”