Yyou can hardly recognize Luna when she appears in an early scene of KPOP on Broadway. The Korean singer swapped her luscious blonde locks from a previous musical number for auburn hair styled in thick, straight bangs, and swapped the dainty suit she’d been wearing just minutes earlier for a simple dress and old-fashioned trainers. Luna plays 9-year-old MwE, who auditions to join the fictional film K-pop company RBY Entertainment in a flashback set 18 years ago. MwE timidly approaches when it’s her turn to perform, her eyes squinted under the spotlight and her palms rubbing restlessly at her sides. But as soon as MwE starts singing the ballad “Still I Love You,” she goes from nervous child in poised star. This is something that RBY Entertainment founder Ruby immediately recognized: she had found her muse in MwE.
Luna’s path reflects that of her character. Like MwE, her talent was noticed at an early age, although she did not seek out auditions. Luna, born Park Soon-yong, was discovered when she danced on reality television show called “Truth Game”. It was January 2006 and 12-year-old Luna danced to the beat of Jeon Hye-bin’s ‘2 AM’. After appearing on the show, Luna was scouted by powerhouse label SM Entertainment. In September 2009, she debuted in K-pop girl group f(x) along with Victoria, Amber, Krystal and Sully. More than a decade after launching her career in Seoul, Luna, now 29, is doing it Broadway debut in KPOP. That’s another similarity she shares with MwE, who in the show worked for her first Circle performance in New York at the Square Theater.
KPOP tells the story of MwE’s journey to stardom through snapshots of her life – from her initial audition, to the grueling practices of becoming an intern, to the glamorous performances of her first world tour. The musical also explores the pressures of fame: as a K-pop idol, MwE has high expectations from his label. Her songs, while extremely popular, aren’t exactly a form of self-expression for the artist. The musical’s signature number – “봙어리새” – pronounced “Bung Uh Ree Sae” and translated as “No Bird” – captures the unique struggle.
“It really encapsulates what I, Luna, go through through the stages of my life,” Luna tells TIME. “As a K-pop idol, there have been times where I’ve definitely felt mute — when I can’t express what I’m going through because of this position.”
Moon in “KPOP”
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Since debuting in 2009, f(x) has released numerous commercially successful, critically acclaimed albums, including 2013’s Pink ribbon and 2015 4 walls. In 2016, Luna made her solo debut with an EP Free somebody, while continuing the activity with the group. In the 2010s, the artist performed in musical theatre in Korea – she has starred in roles including Elle Woods in Legally blonde musical, Nina Rosario c in the heights and Sophie inside Mamma Mia! In 2019, Luna left SM Entertainment after the label announced that she did not renew her contract. She has since started her own label, Grida Entertainment, and released more music as a solo artist.
Like Luna, a lot K-pop stars are in the public eye from a young age – joining agencies in their pre-teens to mid-teens and training vigorously until their debut. Once they debut, their schedules are a different beast: it’s the norm for young artists to release new music two to three times a year, with plenty of promotional activities and variety show appearances in between. And while social media accounts for individual members are increasingly common for today’s K-pop artists, much of the artists’ communication with fans takes place through the groups’ official channels.
A verse in “Bung Uh Ree Sae” reads, “I’ve got so much I want to say / But like a mute, my lips / Stay closed and can’t open.” Luna strongly relates to these lines. “As a K-pop singer and musical theater actor, just being able to express what I couldn’t express felt like such an opportunity for me,” says Luna. And while there’s definitely sadness in “Bung Uh Ree Sae,” the singer says it’s also a song that comforts her because it reflects her experiences.
“I’ve been a constant ‘no bird’ throughout my career,” says Luna. “When I debuted, it was all about turning Luna into a creature. There was no time to say anything.
The focus at the time was following instructions that would help create the Moon. Once that personality was established, Luna was at a loss – who was she like Park Soon-yong? “I was losing myself,” she says. Accustomed to being the “perfect” Luna, she began to hide her true human flaws. “I was really losing track of who I was besides Luna. And I think that kind of confusion arises for all idols, K-pop stars at some point in their career.”
Jason Kim, who wrote the book about KPOP, says Luna’s honesty about her experiences helped inform the nuances of the musical. The show premiered off-Broadway in 2017, though it looked very different at the Ars Nova Theater. For KPOPMaking its Broadway debut on Broadway, the creative team spoke at length with Luna about how MwE will be presented. “We had no interest in this piece being an exposure to any industry,” Kim says of her conversations with Luna. “We both take the K-pop machine very seriously.”
for kim KPOP started from a curious place. “I was really thinking about the huge sacrifices and the rigor it takes to be an international star at this level,” he says. “And what that means in terms of someone’s psychology and why someone would choose to do something like that.”
Once on board KPOP in November 2021, Luna says she has given “her whole being” to MwE’s character development. “The development of the character was a bit traumatic at times,” she says. “I had to go back into my own life and sometimes bring back past memories that triggered me.” The process also raised a number of questions in her mind. “How did I as Luna persevere through these many obstacles that you as K- pop idol? And how did MwE hold up through them too? How much of the negative and positive side of being a K-pop star should I be able to express, and what is that balance?’
Although it was a challenge, working on MwE’s presentation made it easy for Luna. “Ultimately, developing the character gave me a kind of healing,” she says.
The cast of ‘KPOP’
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
KPOPThe cast includes multiple members who started their careers as K-pop idols, including U-KISS’s Kevin Woo, MISS A’s Min, and SPICA’s Bohyung. Woo, who plays Joon Hyuk in the musical, says that Luna, like MwE, had to overcome many hardships to become the star she is today. “Because she was brought up in K-pop at such a young age, training since she was about 12 or 13,” Wu says, “She’s perfect for this role.”
He and Luna often talk about why they chose to join KPOP– and temporarily move to the US from Korea. “It was a perfect opportunity for us to showcase not only our talents, but also our story to America and specifically to Broadway,” says Wu. “You can really see the intricacies of the process. And not just the hardships, but the rewards as well.” Of course, it’s impossible to tell the full story of the K-pop star in two hours. But Wu says the broad strokes are there. “The MwE character in the story shows a glimpse of what it is and what it takes to be a K-pop idol.”
in 2019 Luna left SM Entertainment after spending more than a decade at the label, working under company head Lee Soo-man. She likens her experience there to going through puberty. “[Leaving] it was a form of rebellion,” she says. “When you spend too much time with your parents, you have to leave.” She wanted to try something of her own, write songs and rediscover the forgotten parts of herself. Luna says she would work with Lee again, but wants to do it as an artist who has grown more in her career. “I thought it was really cool with you, but I want to venture out and try my hand at writing my own songs.”
After parting ways with the label, Luna faced a number of health challenges. “Physically, emotionally, psychologically, I was in a very weakened state,” she says. She began to doubt her own worth. The standards of her life as a K-pop idol had worn her down: “When I worked in the K-pop world, I was always the worst person. I was the ugliest. I was someone who, no matter how hard I tried, I always felt so miserable about everything because that’s how I was conditioned to think. I really got to the point where I thought, if I’m putting in all this work and this is what I’m getting, what have I really accomplished in my life?’
But joining KPOP helped “This is the first time I’ve worked in such an environment that really believes in me unconditionally, that thinks the best for me,” she says.
Read more: A jubilant Broadway homecoming
Luna originally thought to be a part of KPOP will mark her last time on stage as a singer. “I was really ready to say goodbye after this project,” she says. At the time, she struggled with self-doubt and questioned whether she even deserved to be on stage. But being part of the cast made her think deeply about why she felt the way she did to begin with — and what she values most as an artist. “In the process, I learned that I’ve been so lucky to be where I am in life right now,” says Luna. While she previously doubted whether her efforts had led to anything and began to regret her life choices, Luna says she no longer feels that way. “I really gave it my all and I have no regrets.”
And while the artist spent time reflecting on her past while working on KPOP, she gained clarity about the future. “I really realized that as a singer, as Luna, I still have some things that I haven’t been able to express,” she says. “There are some songs I’ve written myself that I’d like to eventually produce.” Luna is considering working with Helen Park, who composed the music KPOP— on some of the songs.
She also thought about another passion in her life: dancing. “I’m slowly trying to imagine myself in another phase of my life as a choreographer,” she says. In short, there are multiple avenues she hopes to explore. It’s a desire her character, MwE, also has in the musical. Although MwE has released hit after hit, she wants more of her voice—and herself—in what she shares with the world.
“I don’t think this will be the last you see of me,” Luna says. “And it’s really touching because that’s also the journey for MwE: It’s not the end, it’s a new beginning.”
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