(Photo: Vincent Tullo for The New York Times)
by by Ashley Griffin
Last week, the Broadway musical “KPOP” closed after only seventeen performances. The first musical based around the KPOP phenomenon, it had a successful off-Broadway run where it existed as a more immersive experience. But when it transferred to Broadway, it was immediately met with controversy, namely in the form of a review in the New York Times written by Jesse Green. Both audiences and industry members slammed Green (and the Times) for what is being described as “casual racism.” Green’s words immediately prompted a public statement from the KPOP producers (and others) denouncing the review, as well as a counter-response from the Times that basically said they held a form of internal inquiry and believe that Green’s review was fair and absolutely not racist.
You can read the Times review here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/27/theater/kpop-review-broadway.html
And more on the backlash here: https://www.playbill.com/article/the-new-york-times-responds-to-kpop-review-controversy
There are lots of great deep dives out there about this controversy and the potential racism at play and I highly suggest you check them out as this is an important issue that very much needs to be addressed.
But I’d like to talk about another contentious aspect of Green’s review – his response to the music. Green bemoans that “There are only three instrumentalists” and criticizes the “mostly electronic arrangements.”
In the producers’ public response to the review, they say:
“Mr. Green’s ignorance of and distaste for K-pop as a genre leads to the odd and, again, dismissive and diminishing comment that there are ‘only three instrumentalists’. K-pop music is an overwhelmingly electronic music that takes effort and talent to produce. The score is at one with the genre and brings a new sonic vocabulary to Broadway. Not to mention, the person who produced it is the first ever Asian woman composer on Broadway, and yet Mr. Green offers no acknowledgement of that…”
This is indicative of a general trend of, if not backlash, pushback against the broader use of electronic music in a Broadway show. Thus far, it has primarily been used to add more coloring (as in “Hamilton”) but, to my knowledge, “KPOP” is the first show to only use three live musicians (and not just as a paired down band either, but as a supplement to recorded electronic music) and some people aren’t happy about it. This is capping off a serious musical reckoning that has been building for a long time, and I think it’s helpful to step back and really look at it.
Music has, obviously, always been an incredibly important part of musical theater. Back in the Golden Age, pits were filled to the brim with full orchestras playing lush scores, and it’s long been one of the aspects of musical theater many people love the most: the opportunity to listen to live, original music being played by a wonderful orchestra. In the 2010 Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific” one of the things the show was most heralded for was the use of a full orchestra – so much on display that the opening of the show was the stage rolling back, allowing the audience to watch the orchestra during the entirety of the overture.
Conversely, non-live music has long been widely criticized. There was immense controversy over the 2000 musical “Contact” (also at Lincoln Center), which was nominated for a Tony for best musical, despite having a completely pre-recorded score, largely widely known pop music. There was no singing in the show, and the most iconic moment was when the Girl in a Yellow Dress steps out onto the dancefloor, “Simply Irresistible” blasting her arrival (the number is rather spectacular and cemented Susan Stroman as a force to be reckoned with). People were livid that what they felt amounted to a dance show, with no original music, and no singing, was being nominated for a best musical Tony.
But in the 2000s two separate things began happening that permanently upended the way music was not only performed on Broadway but worldwide.
The first was the fact that musicians are expensive, and with the ever-rising costs of producing a musical (the McMusicals of the ’80s and ‘90’s proving to be the new rule, not the exception,) hiring a full orchestra for eight shows a week was an expense many producers felt needed to be trimmed. There’s been lots of debate about this but it basically amounts to “We’re going with one violin instead of three or four if it means I can finance this show” on the one side, and on the other; “The music doesn’t sound the same with a paired down orchestra…it’s not the same experience for less money, so what’s the point?”
The other element was that electronic music was becoming more widely accessible. I went to the Hamilton Academy of Music – a phenomenal performing arts high school in Los Angeles that was ahead of the curve in many ways, one of which was that it had an established electronic music department (yes, you could major in electronic music the same way you could piano or flute…) starting in (I believe) the ’90s. Students would perform electronic compositions at concerts, wheeling out a small table with a couple of computers and speakers, press play, and we would listen to their original compositions.
And the technology kept getting better and better. Now, not only can you utilize sounds that are incredibly similar to real instruments (called “patches”), you can create sounds that no instrument can produce. This has long been a staple of pop music, rap, and many other genres – so much so that for a long time now, if you go see a concert of a popular musical artist, you are guaranteed to be hearing electronic tracks – either singularly or in conjunction with some live musicians. Electronic sound has also affected the way vocals are mixed, and there have been several controversies where artists have sung live at their concerts only for fans to bemoan that “it doesn’t sound exactly like the album.” Some artists have had to add live vocal effects to keep the song sounding like it does on the album, and, well, lip-synching has been used forever for a myriad of different reasons.
And speaking of lip-synching, let’s not forget that it has been used on Broadway as well for a long time. I won’t give specific examples, but suffice it to say that if a number is incredibly challenging physically – so much so that it’s near impossible to sing at full force while executing the choreography, the vocals may be pre-recorded (or “click tracked.”) If a note is too challenging to do successfully eight times a week, it may be pre-recorded, likewise if a show just wants to “sweeten the vocals” (i.e. make it sound like there are twice as many cast members on stage) it may be pre-recorded. Sometimes these instances are viewed as “cheats,” and sometimes as an aesthetic choice.
All this has greatly affected musicians. Now when you look in a Broadway pit, you will almost never see a full orchestra (and that’s if the musicians are even in the theater…some are in other rooms, some in the basement, their sound being broadcast into the theater.) Now, not including shows that specifically have “bands” (not “orchestras”), you will likely see at least two keyboards – one is most often playing the principal piano part, and the other is playing both piano and additional electronic sounds…need an oboe for just two measures of a song? Program a patch into Keyboard 2, and there you go! You will probably see a percussionist and a few other musicians, most likely each playing multiple instruments. And now there’s sometimes the inclusion of full, prerecorded beats, tracks, or sounds to add to the vibe of a song (“Hamilton” is a great example.)
The pairing down of orchestras has been controversial for a long time, not only because many feel it diminishes the sound of a show, but because it puts musicians out of work…and that’s a big problem. With one keyboard, you can theoretically do the work of more than ten musicians – and that’s ten musicians who now don’t have a job. Check out this 2003 Washington Post article by Peter Marks: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/03/10/on-broadway-taking-the-musicians-out-of-the-music/118d7be5-594f-4212-8726-e0fcecefd70f/
Using electronic music for aesthetic reasons has been controversial in a different way – in the sense that many feel it’s “cold” and some go so far as to call it “not real music.” Though, honestly, I don’t know how much longer that even can be a debate given that electronic music is now used, in some form or other, in practically every song being released in any medium, whether created by a label or in your living room on GarageBand…
And K-pop LOVES electronic music.
For any who doesn’t know, K-pop is short for “Korean popular music.” It includes genres from around the world, including pop, rock, jazz, hip hop, R&B, reggae, country, and classical, on top of its traditional Korean music roots. Though the term can apply to all Korean popular music, it has come to specifically refer to the Korean “idol” industry. As of 2019, K-pop was ranked number six among the top ten music markets worldwide, with groups BTS and Blackpink cited as artists leading the market growth (according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s “Global Music Report.”) In 2020, K-pop had a record-breaking year when it experienced a 44.8% growth and positioned itself as the fastest-growing major market of the year. And, yes, Mr. Green…it’s become this popular even given that much of its fan base doesn’t speak Korean… (there are some English lyrics sprinkled throughout.)
I first became familiar with K-pop when “So You Think You Can Dance” featured this phenomenal number choreographed by Lady Gaga dancer (and SYTYCD all-star) Mark Kanemura to “I Am The Best” by 2NE1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SA_pLECBQ6k
Personally, I’m not surprised that “KPOP” didn’t have many live musicians from an aesthetic standpoint. But I am curious about what was going on behind the scenes legally…see, a while back, the musician’s union, in an effort to combat their loss of Broadway jobs, negotiated an agreement that says there must be a certain amount of musicians hired for any Broadway musical, regardless of if those musicians are actually used – meaning that a show could only need X number of musicians, legally have to hire Y number, and those extra musicians collect a paycheck without ever reporting to the theater. I don’t know the specifics of where this contract stands now, but I do wonder if there were musicians on the “KPOP” payroll who simply weren’t actually a part of the show…
But this question of whether or not electronic music belongs on Broadway is two-fold:
1.)   How can we utilize the best of electronic music without costing musicians jobs, and…
2.)   Is electronic music worthy of being on Broadway in the first place, or is it simply one step removed from being a pre-recorded soundtrack.
Those are complex questions, but ones we need to be exploring and find answers to, or organic changes in the industry will make them for us. But in terms of the second question, for what it’s worth, I for one think it absolutely has a place on Broadway. At its best, electronic music is another tool in a composer’s arsenal to create the exact sound they want (try to imagine “Ten Duel Commandments” in “Hamilton” without that beat and “swooshes” behind it.) And I think very much lost in the shuffle in the “KPOP” controversy is the fact that, as the producers pointed out, composer Helen Park is the first female Asian composer on Broadway – and she’s bringing a new sound that Broadway has never had before. I find it interesting that any time a new genre of music finds its way to Broadway it’s met with controversy… “Hip Hop” musicals, “Latin,” “Rap,” “Rock,” even “Jazz Opera” have all been met with resistance. Some of that has to do with the fact that Broadway scores used to dictate the popular music, now it’s almost the last to respond to musical trends that have been popular for decades.
Is there inherent racism going on in the case of “KPOP”? Probably. It’s notable that, despite their worldwide success, there has only ever been one Grammy nomination for a K-pop group (at least according to my research…(and I’m not including design nominations)) and it didn’t come until 2020 (it was for BTS (best pop duo/group performance)). It’s been said that it’s unlikely at this point that K-pop will ever get its own category, and the genre has been dismissed by many despite its continued growth. Now, when it appears on Broadway, however good or bad “KPOP” is as a show, there is almost no conversation about the music, or this new style being brought to the Great White Way for the first time…but K-pop is a herald of the future of electronic music both in the music industry and, eventually on Broadway. We need to pay attention, not dismiss it.
The issues surrounding “KPOP” are indicative of a larger conversation about the incorporation of electronic music… something we need to figure out how to embrace successfully, before it simply takes over while we are sitting back criticizing, and having a debate…
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