New Musical Brings High-Energy World Of K-Pop To Broadway

(AP) — There are some familiar storylines in a new musical opening on Broadway — a singer and her relationship with the mentor who guided her; a newcomer trying to find his place; young women chasing their dreams.

But they’ve never sounded quite like this.

The global sensation that is Korean pop music is coming to center stage in “KPOP,” opening Sunday at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

Playwright Jason Kim appears at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York on Nov. 9, 2022, where his musical “KPOP” will open on Nov. 27. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Picture : WSJ

With an almost entirely Asian American and Asian cast, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts, the musical is set as a backstage look at some K-pop performers as they get ready for their debut show in New York City. Conflicts break out and get resolved, ending in a concert-like performance.

The show’s Broadway arrival has been a long time coming for playwright Jason Kim, who first conceived of a play around K-pop about a decade ago and staged an off-Broadway version in 2017, with music and lyrics composed by Helen Park and Max Vernon.

Born in South Korea, Kim came to the United States as a child, settling with his family in the Midwest. K-pop has been a fixture in his life, as have Korean television dramas. He also loved musical theater, especially shows like “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls” where the story is about what’s happening behind the scenes.

“I love backstage shows,” he said. “Is there fighting going on in-between everybody? Do they all love each other? These are the questions that I asked myself.”

In the initial stage version of the show, Kim was introducing the machine of K-pop to an American audience largely unfamiliar with it; five years later, it’s been rewritten for a world where K-pop musical heavy-hitters like BTS and Blackpink are pop chart mainstays, amid a slew of other Korean entertainment in movies and television like “Squid Games” becoming more popular in the U.S. as well.

Back then, America “didn’t really know what K-pop was, and so there was a lot of explaining that I had to do. … This time around, I didn’t have to really take the stance of having to apologize for anything or having to explain anything, and just let the story unfold,” said Kim, a writer in television and film.

He called the timing “really serendipitous.”

“It’s been really profound and moving actually to watch the world shift in this way.”

A Broadway musical showcasing the sounds of K-pop is a sign of how “the U.S. is finally catching up with what was already going on around the world,” said Robert Ji-Song Ku, an associate professor of Asian American studies at Binghamton University.

K-pop has been growing in popularity globally for the last 20 years, even though other attempts to break into the American market over the years haven’t met with the same success until recently, he said.

“If there’s a spectrum of universality, K-pop is engineered to be as universal as possible,” he said.

Casting the show took about two years, Kim said, with open calls both in the U.S. and South Korea. Some of those in the show have K-pop backgrounds, including Luna, a former member of the group f(x), who plays the central character of MwE, a singer who has spent years working toward her dreams and has come to a crossroads.

It’s a step forward for Asian American representation on Broadway, which matters a great deal to Kim.

The cast during a performance of “KPOP,” opening Nov. 27 at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York. (Matthew Murphy/O+M/DKC via AP)

“That talent exists, and they just need a platform,” he said. “So it was really important to me to put these Asian people on stage and see them not playing the typical roles that they play, but playing rock stars, playing pop stars, dancing their faces off and acting their faces off and just being spectacular.”

For her part, Park called the experience an honor.

“K-pop and Broadway have both been my passion for a long time; K-pop has been like comfort food for me, and Broadway was my seemingly unattainable dream, given there haven’t been many Asian composers, let alone Asian female composers that I can see and dream to be like,” she said in an email. “To be able to bring something that feels like home to me, to my dream stage, Broadway, feels like the most miraculous gift that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.”

Kim said it was also important that the show includes some Korean interspersed among the English, both in the songs and the dialogue.

It’s “a way to be really authentic to the experience of K-pop idols and Korean people,” Kim said, pointing out that “when I speak to my mom, I’m switching back and forth all the time, depending on what we’re talking about.”

“The design of the bilingual nature of the show was very intentional.”

Clearly, a musical built around K-pop has a built-in base of potential audience members. But Kim says there’s something for everyone, even those who have never heard a K-pop tune.

“Hopefully if we do our jobs right, you’re watching a fun musical with a bunch of great K-pop songs,” he said. “But really what you’re getting as you leave the theater is a universal story.” (Hajela is a member of the AP’s team covering race and ethnicity. She’s on Twitter at twitter.com/dhajela)

In Hinduism, women create spaces for their own leadership

Hindu Women Globally Lead By Building Communities, Taking On Positions In Organizations And Passing On Knowledge

When Sushma Dwivedi started seriously thinking about performing wedding rites and other Hindu religious blessings in New York City and elsewhere, she knew who she needed to talk to — her grandmother.

Together, they went through the mantras that are recited by pandits, the priests who perform Hindu religious rituals, to find the ones that resonated with what Dwivedi was trying to do — offer Hindu blessings and services that were welcoming of all, irrespective of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, any of it.

Her grandmother isn’t a pandit — in India, as well as in Indian diaspora communities, that’s been a domain that is largely populated by men, with cultural mores at play. But she had a wealth of religious knowledge, of ritual, of proper pronunciation, to share with her granddaughter.

And that her grandmother played an integral role in Dwivedi’s understanding and practice of Hinduism reflects a larger religious reality. Those who study the religion and its traditions say that while there aren’t a lot of women priests (although that is changing in India and in other places), women in Hinduism globally continue to take on leadership roles in other ways — building communities, taking on positions in organizations, passing on knowledge.

“We just jammed together and sort of went through scriptures. … And in that sense, that’s the ‘old school’-est Hindu way on Earth, right? You pass it down,” Dwivedi said.

After all, it was through her grandparents, immigrants from India, that Dwivedi had been exposed to Hinduism while growing up in Canada. They helped build a Hindu mandir, or temple, in their Montreal community, and made the religion an integral part of her life from childhood.

Hinduism encompasses a range of practices and philosophies, and has a pantheon of divine figures encompassing both male and female. People can call themselves Hindus and yet practice in different ways from each other. There is no central authority, like an equivalent to the role the pope plays in Catholicism.

So leadership, in India as well as Indian immigrant communities, is decentralized and diverse, encompassing religious scholars, Hindu temple boards and more, said Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida who studies Hinduism in India and in the Indian diaspora. “I would also say that women sometimes create the spaces where they can be leaders in all these other ways,” she said.

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, poses for a portrait at their offices in New York City on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Mysorekar got involved with the temple in the mid-1980s and has been part of its administration for years, as it expanded its facilities as well as its programming. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

They’re women like Dr. Uma Mysorekar, who serves as president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. It runs one of the oldest Hindu temples in the United States in the Flushing section of New York City’s Queens borough.

Mysorekar, trained as a physician, got involved with the temple in the mid-1980s, and has been part of its administration for years, as it expanded its facilities as well as its programming. There are programs for seniors as well as young adults; the temple kitchen is available on food delivery apps.

Being an administrator wasn’t her intention when she started, Mysorekar said. “I didn’t get involved to become a president. But when the circumstances were forced in, I did accept that challenge.” She’s convinced that in Hinduism, women can be leaders simply by virtue of their ability to communicate the faith to others, notably to children.

“How many women have led … going back to times immemorial, and what they have contributed, it should give you that exemplary feeling,” she said. “It’s not that women have to be priests to be leaders, women have to be able to spread the teachings.”

And in this modern age, when so much vital activity occurs online, women are making a difference there, too, said Dheepa Sundaram, assistant professor of Hindu studies, critical theory and digital religion at the University of Denver (and a contributor to Religion News Service).

“If you look at social media spaces, you see a lot of women leading different kinds of groups now,” she said.

She pointed to shubhpuja.com as an example, a site co-founded by a woman, Saumya Vardhan, that allows people all over the world to connect with pandits in India, who perform pujas, the religious rituals, that can be seen via videoconferencing.

“We’re seeing women carve out different spaces in the spirituality ecosystem to find a way to actually gain power in that ecosystem,” she said.

And there are examples of women making inroads even when it comes to being pandits, of pushing back against patriarchal restraints.

Manisha Shete, a practicing Hindu priest, smiles as she performs posthumous rituals for her client’s mother at a residence in Pune, India, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Shete, who first began to officiate at religious ceremonies in 2008, said demand is growing and “people have started accepting women priests.” (AP Photo/Abhijit Bhatlekar)

Manisha Shete, 51, a female priest who has been working as the coordinator at Jnana Prabodhini, a Hindu reformist school in Pune in western India that trains men and women to perform rituals, first began to officiate at religious ceremonies in 2008.

Her aspirations stemmed in part from an interest in India’s ancient scriptures; after getting married, she studied “After my wedding, I studied Indology — the history, culture, languages and literature of India. During my research work at the Sanskrit language department in Jnana Prabodhini … I felt that I can do this and I should do it. It was my favorite subject,” Shete told The Associated Press.

Shete said at her school in Pune, where the course for the priesthood can extend up to 18 months, 80% of the students were women, including many who had been housewives and many others who voluntarily their jobs to enter the school.

She said the demand for female priests is growing in urban areas, especially among young women, and she often gets requests even from Indian families overseas to conduct rituals. “People have started accepting women priests. Every reform comes with some obstacles. But it is happening.”

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