BWW Interview: Helen Park Shares the Journey of KPOP and its Broadway Destiny
After seeing her show at 54 Below, Chris Struck set up an interview with Helen Park to discuss KPOP, a high energy musical destined for Broadway!
Chris: Hi Helen, nice to speak with you again. So, you're coming off your first solo concert or cabaret at 54 Below. How did that get put together?
HELEN: I'm delighted to have this conversation with you, and thanks so much for coming to my first solo concert at 54 Below. I've always wanted to have a concert of my songs, but I backed out many times because I didn't feel I was quite ready. But when 54 Below reached out to me a couple months ago about their New Writers at 54 Series, a part of me just went "YOLO" and decided I wanted to see what putting on a concert was all about. It was certainly a lot of work and prep going into it, but I'm so glad that I did it. Most of the time as a composer, I'm in my room writing and producing by myself, so it was definitely a special night out where I could share my music with other people. The audience was great - the show was sold out! Everyone there was so supportive and enthusiastic, and I felt a strong connection and bond with the audience, which felt like a dream and I'm so grateful for it.
Chris: One of the things that I noticed is that you had a lot of songs from a variety of inspirations. What do you think has been one of your main inspirations in music?
HELEN: I grew up moving around a lot. I was born in Busan, Korea, then moved around many times in Korea, Canada and the US up until now. I think that's probably why I have a lot of different inspirations when it comes to music. When I was little, I listened to a lot of church music and classical music. Then as I went into elementary school in the US, I was exposed to Michael Jackson and pop music. When I went back to Korea for 5th grade, I started listening to K-pop music, and became obsessed with boybands and K-pop idols. Since I moved to Canada alone to be in a boarding school at age 15, K-pop has been what I would listen to when I missed home. The music felt like home to me. I also became interested in other genres like jazz, gospel and R&B, as well as Broadway. All the cultures that I've experienced influenced my taste and how I experience music.
Chris: So, you grew up in South Korea and Canada and America. You've always enjoyed K-pop, the genre. I agree it's a lot of fun, even for a non-Korean speaker like myself. Let's talk about how that became a musical. What led up to it, what important things had to happen?
HELEN: Teddy Bergman (director) and Jason Kim (bookwriter) both came up with the idea to do an immersive musical about K-pop. Ars Nova connected the two, looked for songwriters to commission to write music, and that's when I joined -- in 2014. Back then, we didn't have all the details or script ready, so for 3 years since then, we went through close collaboration to come up with the story and what we wanted to communicate through our show. The most important thing for me, personally, was to make sure that we're doing our best in thoroughly researching the genre and the culture we're examining in our show. It's very easy to work off of a brief impression of a genre, and that's when things can get skewed or misinterpreted. In terms of the music, I wanted to make sure that none of the songs sound like a bad parody or mockery of the Korean pop phenomenon that is already widely popular around the globe. That meant really studying pop hit songs, breaking them apart and analyzing them. Also, as the music producer for this show on top of the composing component, I had to work on bettering my electronic music producing skills as well. It's been a continuous learning experience.
Chris: Was this your first experience writing for theater?
HELEN: I had been studying musical theater writing at NY, and I wrote a couple pieces prior to this-but KPOP was my first professional theater writing experience. When I started writing KPOP, I was music assistant to Tom Kitt for If/Then on Broadway. I assisted Tom for three years and learned a lot about how the industry works and how a show gets developed for the stage. That helped a lot when working on my first show.
Chris: KPOP ran pretty successfully off-Broadway, correct?
HELEN: Yes! KPOP was the most nominated Off-Broadway show of the 2017-18 season, and won the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award as well as the Richard Rodgers Award. Although, I think the best indication of its success isn't so much the awards but the fact that tickets were sold out even before previews began. It was wild.
Chris: Could you tell us a little bit about what's next for the musical? I heard that it was being or had been taken out of town to be prepped for a Broadway run. How much of that is true?
HELEN: It's true! We're busy at work preparing for a Broadway run. Stay tuned...!
Chris: What do you hope your audiences feel after watching your musical? Do you hope that people just have fun, or do you also hope that Americans will learn a little more about South Korea?
HELEN: I certainly hope that people have a blast through the unique uplifting energy that K-pop music brings. But more importantly, I really hope that people will see the humanity, complexity and diversity of the Korean and Asian community through the characters in our show. There's a tendency in the media to generalize or flatten Asian characters. I wish to do the opposite - reveal the flawed, complicated and multi-layered truth of people and have the audience see themselves in them. That would be so amazing.
Chris: Do you have any other ideas you'd like to see put in production that you've been working in the meantime? Is there any "you time"?
HELEN: I'm constantly exploring and looking for show ideas that I'm passionate about. There are some projects that I've been approached with, but I have to really love the project that I'm jumping into, so I like to give a lot of thought into what I write next. It's an ongoing journey!
Chris: Is there anything else that you'd like audiences to know about you or you?
HELEN: Well, I would like to talk a little bit about my upcoming Netflix original animation, Over the Moon.
Chris: Oh, sweet! Let's cover the basics: is it a full-length film? Is it a musical? Who's directing it?
HELEN: I'm writing songs for an upcoming musical animation feature film directed by Academy award winner and Disney legend, Glen Keane, with Chris Curtis and Marjorie Duffield. And yes, it's a full-length film. It's going to be released this fall on Netflix. I'm really excited about the cast but I can't say anything right now! I had a lot of fun working on it and I can't wait for people to see it.
Chris: What's it like working on a Netflix musical feature film with Glen Keane?
HELEN: It's been really surreal. Glen Keane designed Ariel in Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Aladdin and the beast in Beauty and the Beast among others, so seeing him direct an animation feature and seeing his process has been very cool. Animation is all about collaboration with so many different people, and it's a pretty long process, but the joy of seeing it all come together is indescribable.
Chris: How did that process get started?
HELEN: Someone at Pearl Studios, the production company for the film previously known as Oriental Dreamworks, came and saw KPOP and loved it. They reached out for an interview and the rest is history!
Chris: Great, that's so cool. Thanks for taking the time to share a bit about you to the Broadway World audience!