You almost can’t recognize Luna when she appears in an early scene of KPOP on Broadway. The Korean singer has swapped out the luscious blonde locks from a prior musical number for brown hair styled with thick, straight-across bangs, and replaced the exquisite costume she wore just minutes before with a plain dress and old-fashioned sneakers. Luna is playing 9-year-old MwE, who is auditioning to join the fictional K-pop company RBY Entertainment in a flashback set 18 years ago. MwE timidly steps up when it’s her turn to perform, her eyes squinting under the spotlight and her palms rubbing uneasily against her sides. But as soon as MwE begins to sing the ballad “Still I Love You,” she transforms from a nervous child to a poised star. It’s something that RBY Entertainment’s founder Ruby immediately recognizes: she has found her muse in MwE.
Luna’s path mirrors that of her character. Like MwE, her talent was spotted at a young age—though she did not seek out auditions. Luna, born Park Sun-young, was discovered when she danced on a reality TV show called “Truth Game.” It was January 2006, and 12–year-old Luna grooved to the rhythm of Jeon Hye-bin’s “2 AM.” Following her appearance on the show, Luna was scouted by the powerhouse label SM Entertainment. In September 2009, she debuted in the K-pop girl group f(x) along with Victoria, Amber, Krystal, and Sulli. More than a decade after launching her career in Seoul, Luna, now 29, makes her Broadway debut in KPOP. It’s another similarity she shares with MwE, who in the show works toward her first time performing in New York City’s Circle in the Square Theater.
KPOP tells the story of MwE’s road to stardom through snapshots of her life—from the initial audition to the grueling practices after she became a trainee to the glamorous performances of her first world tour. The musical also explores the pressures of fame: as a K-pop idol, MwE faces high expectations from her label. Her songs, though wildly popular, are not exactly a mode of self-expression for the artist. The musical’s standout number—“벙어리새”—pronounced “Bung Uh Ree Sae” and translated to “Mute Bird”—captures the unique struggle.
“It really encapsulates what I, Luna, am going through in my life stages,” Luna tells TIME. “As a K-pop idol, there have been times when I definitely felt mute—where I can’t express what I’m going through because of that position.”
After debuting in 2009, f(x) released multiple commercially successful, critically acclaimed albums including 2013’s Pink Tape and 2015’s 4 Walls. In 2016, Luna made her solo debut with the EP Free Somebody, while continuing activities with the group. Throughout the 2010s the artist was also active in musical theater in Korea—she has starred in roles including Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde musical, Nina Rosario in In the Heights, and Sophie in Mamma Mia! In 2019, Luna left SM Entertainment after the label announced that she did not renew her contract. She has since launched her own label, Grida Entertainment, and released more music as a solo artist.
Like Luna, many K-pop stars are in the public eye from a young age—joining agencies in their pre-teen to mid-teen years and training vigorously until they debut. Once they’ve debuted, their schedules are another beast: It’s the norm for the young artists to release new music two to three times a year, with plenty of promotional activities and variety show appearances sandwiched in between. And while social media accounts for individual members are increasingly common for today’s K-pop acts, much of the artists’ communication to fans takes place through the groups’ official channels.
A verse in “Bung Uh Ree Sae” goes, “I have so much I want to say / But like a mute, my lips / Stay together and can’t open.” Luna strongly relates to those lines. “As a K-pop singer and a musical theater actor, just to be able to express that which I was not able to express felt like such an opportunity to me,” Luna says. And while there is definitely sadness in “Bung Uh Ree Sae,” the artist says it’s also a song that consoles her because of how it reflects her experiences.
“Consistently, I’ve been a ‘mute bird’ throughout my career,” Luna says. “When I debuted, everything was about making Luna into a being. There was no time to say anything.”
The focus at the time was following instructions that would help create Luna. Once that persona was established, Luna was at a loss—who was she as Park Sun-young? “I was losing my own self,” she says. Accustomed to being the “perfect” Luna, she began to hide her actual human flaws. “I was really losing a grip of who I was apart from Luna. And I think this kind of confusion arises for all idols, K-pop stars at some point in their careers.”
Jason Kim, who wrote the book for KPOP, says Luna’s honesty about her experiences helped inform the musical’s nuances. The show first premiered Off-Broadway in 2017, though it looked very different at the Ars Nova theater. For KPOP’s Broadway debut, the creative team spoke extensively with Luna about how MwE would be portrayed. “We had no interest in this piece being an expose of any sort of the industry,” Kim says of his conversations with Luna. “We both take the machine of K-pop very seriously.”
For Kim, KPOP started from a place of curiosity. “I really was thinking about the enormous sacrifice and the rigor required in order to be an international star at this level,” he says. “And what that means in terms of one’s psychology and why somebody would choose to do something like this.”
After coming onboard KPOP in November 2021, Luna says she gave her “whole being” to developing MwE’s character. “Developing the character was sometimes a bit traumatic,” she says. “I had to go back into my own life and sometimes bring back past memories that have been triggering.” The process also prompted a series of questions in her mind. “How did I as Luna persevere through these many obstacles that you face being a K-pop idol? And how did MwE also persevere through them? 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?”
Though it was challenging, working on portraying MwE brought ease to Luna. “Ultimately, developing the character has given me a type of healing,” she says.
KPOP’s cast features multiple members who began their careers as K-pop idols, including Kevin Woo of U-KISS, Min of MISS A, and Bohyung of SPICA. Woo, who plays Jun Hyuk in the musical, says Luna, like MwE, has had to overcome much adversity to become the star she is today. “Being brought up in K-pop at such a young age, training since she was around 12 or 13,” Woo says, “She’s the perfect fit for this role.”
He and Luna often talk about why they chose to join KPOP—and temporarily move to the U.S. from Korea. “It was a perfect opportunity for us to showcase not only our talents, but our story to America and specifically Broadway,” Woo says. “You get to really see the ins and outs of what the process is like. And not only the hardships but also the rewards.” Of course, it’s impossible to tell the full story of K-pop stardom in two hours. But Woo says the broad strokes are there. “MwE’s character in the story, it shows a glimpse of what it’s like 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] was a form of rebellion,” she says. “When you have too much time with your parents, you kind of have to leave.” She wanted to try her own thing, writing songs and rediscovering the forgotten parts of herself. Luna says she would work with Lee again, but wants to do so as an artist who has grown more in her career. “My thinking was, it’s really been great with you, but I want to venture out and try my hand in writing my own songs.”
After saying goodbye to the label, Luna faced a set of health challenges. “Physically, emotionally, psychologically, I was in a very weakened state,” she says. She began to question her self-worth. The standards of her life as a K-pop idol had worn her down: “When I was working in the K-pop world, I was always the person who was the worst. I was the ugliest. I was someone who, however much I tried, I always felt so unlucky in everything because that’s how I was conditioned to think. It really got to the point where I was thinking, if I’m putting in all this work, and this is what I’m getting, what have I actually achieved in my life?”
But joining KPOP helped. “This is the first time that I’ve worked in this kind of environment that really trusts me unconditionally, that thinks the best of me,” she says.
Read more: Inside Broadway’s Jubilant Homecoming
Luna initially thought being a part of KPOP would 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 was battling self-doubt and questioning whether she deserved to be on stage at all. But being a part of the cast made her deeply consider why she felt that way to begin with—and what she values most as an artist. “In that process, I’ve learned that I’ve been so lucky to be where I am in life right now,” Luna says. While she previously questioned whether her efforts amounted to anything, and started to regret choices in her life, Luna says she no longer feels that way. “I’ve really given my all and so I have no regrets.”
And as the artist spent time reflecting on her past while working on KPOP, she’s gained clarity about the future. “I’ve really realized that as a singer, as Luna, I still have certain things I have not been able to express,” she says. “There are certain songs that I’ve written on my own that I would like to eventually produce.” Luna is considering the possibility of working with Helen Park—who composed the music in KPOP—on some of the songs.
She has also been thinking about another passion in her life: dance. “I’m slowly trying to imagine myself in another stage of my life as a choreographer,” she says. In short, there are multiple avenues she hopes to explore. It’s a desire that her character, MwE, has in the musical too. Though 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 that you will see of me,” Luna says. “And it’s really poignant because that that’s the journey for MwE as well: It’s not the end, it’s a new beginning.”
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- Greta Gerwig's Next Big Swing
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The Best Romantic Comedies to Watch on Netflix
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org