In Conversation with Composer and Lyricist Max Vernon

Image via Roberto Araujo

An innovative composer and lyricist who likes to fuse rock, pop, and musical theater sensibilities for unique and progressive projects, Max Vernon will make their Broadway debut on November 20 with KPOP, one of the season’s most highly anticipated new musicals.

The production, which explores the relentless discipline, raw talent, and commercial ambition behind the international sensation, is packed with pulse-pounding music and electrifying choreography. As global superstars put everything on the line for a special one-night-only concert, they face struggles both cultural and personal that threaten to dismantle one of the industry’s hottest labels.

Featuring a cast of K-pop and musical theater stars, KPOP is a multimedia experience unlike anything else on Broadway.

Vernon is a three-time Drama Desk nominee and OUT 100 Honoree, who first made a splash in New York with their Off-Broadway hit The View Upstairs. Their musical The Tattooed Lady, starring iconic actress Jackie Hoffman, is currently receiving its world premiere at Philadelphia Theater Company through November 20.

The rising artist took some time to talk more about their multiple projects with Instinct.

Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, Max! How excited are you for KPOP to make its Broadway debut?

I’m very excited! It’s going to be a climactic day because the opening night is also the closing night of The Tattooed Lady, which has been a five-year journey in the making. KPOP has been a nine-year journey in the making, from when we first started writing for Off-Broadway to our now Broadway debut. There’s a lot of culminating energy, but I’m excited to be a proud parent and release those shows into the world. I look forward to seeing what kind of lives they have.  

Image via Matthew Murphy

Why did you want to be involved with this KPOP?

I wanted to be involved in KPOP because before I went to grad school, I had worked on an all-electronic musical at Ars Nova that was about robots, but also critiquing celebrity culture. I produced all my own music for that, so when Woodshed Collective approached Ars Nova about teaming up to do an immersive musical and they were putting together the creative team, Ars Nova suggested me.

I had also gone to grad school with Helen Park. We bonded over our love of pop music there. She’s Korean, she wanted to be a K-pop writer when she was growing up, she played me some music she’d written, and we had a really good collaboration in grad school. So, I brought her onto the project, and we continued working together.

From a creative standpoint, I had the skill set, but hearing what the story was going to be about, even though I’m not Korean, a lot of the story resonated with me. I felt a lot of the same experiences growing up. Being Jewish, being a model minority in a way, and feeling like you must represent your community, be successful, and work so hard because of the subtle discrimination that can be present. Those were themes that certainly resonated with me.

Also, a lot of my works revolve around the themes of community and self-actualization. Like, what do you need to give up in order to get the thing you want or to be seen? So much of those themes are present in KPOP. So, creatively, it was very exciting for me to dive into the story, and then having an opportunity to work with a bunch of really cool artists and make the show.

How much has the show changed since its world premiere Off-Broadway at Ars Nova in 2017?

Yeah, the show has changed a lot. It’s a different show. There is a lot of music and holdover characters that were in the original production, but to me, it’s almost like when you see Star Wars, or your favorite horror movie get a reboot. It’s the same characters, but it’s in a slightly different world and some of the plot points have changed, and you just kind of go with it.

Image via Matthew Murphy

To me, that’s what KPOP is. When we built it Off-Broadway, it was in three different floors of the building, 30 plus rooms, it was almost trying to be like Sleep No More, but it was a book musical and there were all these Easter eggs. Every time you saw it, it was a completely different experience. Creating it for Broadway, we had to standardize the show. It is still an immersive staging, but it is in the round at Circle in the Square so that audiences can have a more unified experience.

Originally, in the Off-Broadway iteration, you were getting different plot lines, but the actual concert didn’t happen until the last 20 minutes of the show. We’ve partially structured the show now around a concert so that you are seeing a live taping of a concert. Throughout the show, you’re getting these high-energy, dynamic, full out production numbers. I’m happy that people saw it Off-Broadway, and if they liked that iteration, there’s still a ton in the show that they’ll love. I just think people should know that it is a different show.

The K-pop genre itself is constantly evolving. Do you believe it’s as popular here in America as it was a couple years ago?

Yes, and that’s also part of what motivated a lot of our changes from Off-Broadway. Thematically, the show was about can, K-pop crossover and what would those artists have to sacrifice in order to appeal to an American market? As we learned with BTS, it turns out they didn’t have to sacrifice that much, and they did crossover. So, we had to reflect those changes in the book, but also as you said, pop music changes every 4-5 years, and that is no different with K-pop.

It’s like if you were doing a musical called Pop and all the music in the show sounded like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Britney, if you launched that in 2022, people would be like, huh? Similarly, we had to update the score and a lot of the themes in the show, but yeah, I think K-pop is more popular than ever in the U.S. Blackpink, BTS, NCT 127, so many people know about them.

In terms of traditional theater audiences knowing about what K-pop is, whether they’re more aware of it now versus a couple years ago, I don’t know. If people don’t know what K-pop is, they should come to the show because it’s a great introduction to it.

Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from this production?

Image via Matthew Murphy

I feel like there’s a lot in the world right now that is very unsettling. We’re in uncertain times, and it feels like a lot of shit in the world is upside down, scary, and depressing, and I feel like KPOP is joyful. It’s something you can see, laugh and have fun with, have a good time, and release a burst of joy. I really want the show to be an outlet for people who need one right now, but I also hope they see the incredible triple threat Asian talent that is serving it up in roles that are not typically given to Asian performers on Broadway. We basically only have Miss Saigon, South Pacific or The King and I. This is a very different type of role, and I think our performers are killing it and leaving it on the floor every night.

Is there a song from the musical that is your absolute favorite?

I think my favorite song from the show is “Wind Up Doll,” which is a song that Ashley Park sang in the original version, but Luna sings it in this version. That song is fun, hooky, and super catchy, but if you really look at what the lyrics of the song are saying, they’re a little bit sinister. Even though the song feels so effervescent and fun, it is sub textually telling you what it is to be a star and a celebrity. The sacrifices you must make so that everybody else can experience that joy, but for a performer, it can leave you feeling like a wind-up doll. Like, someone pushes a button and then you perform.

Have you always had a passion and desire to work in musical theater?

Yes, I would say musical theater was my very first passion. I was born in 1988, and that was the era of these big international musicals coming in like Les Mis or everything Andrew Lloyd Webber was doing. So, I grew up listening to all those cast albums every single night, and also when Rent happened, that was a huge game changer for me because the only other queer person in my family was my uncle, who died of AIDS. The themes of the show are very relevant to me, and my parents didn’t want me to see it because they thought it was inappropriate. Of course, I became obsessed because if you tell me I can’t see something because it’s inappropriate, I need to go see it.

I had a deep love of musical theater and almost an encyclopedic knowledge of it, but as I grew up and got older, when I was around 12 or 13, I started being bullied and getting called a faggot five times a day, and I associated my love of musical theater a little bit with that. So, I made a really hard schism with that side of my identity. Instead, I became this different person. I got into punk music, drugs, rock and roll, fashion, and performance art, and I moved to New York when I was 18, basically to be a club kid. The last 10 years of my life, I would say it’s been about stitching these two disparate parts of myself back together and saying, no, I really do still love musical theater.

I believe it’s the great American art form, but I want to write musicals and create a body of work that could appeal to my 14, 15-year-old jaded self, who felt like musicals sucked and were lame. I want to create a body of work that is refreshing, sexy, provocative, and rock and roll. All the musicals I write about, they’re about robots, aliens, tattooed ladies, freak shows, forgotten gay bars with time travel, or Korean pop stars and the apocalypse. That’s the kind of work I want to make.

Image via Roberto Araujo

Let’s circle back for a moment to The Tattooed Lady, which is currently playing at the Philadelphia Theatre Company through November 20. What’s the story behind this show?

The story behind The Tattooed Lady, it’s a musical that is inspired by the actual tattooed women who performed in freak shows in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the story is about the oldest living tattooed lady who is hiding out in suburbia and living a double life. She has kind of reinvented herself as this conservative activist, and no one in her community knows that she was formerly a freak. She is railing against the immorality of America and how degenerate art is destroying the youth of tomorrow.

That character is a little bit like Hedwig meets Phyllis Schlafly meets Mama Rose, and it’s a rock musical. It spans over 100 years, and then these tattooed ladies show up at this woman’s house and they start devising theater for her to get her to let go of her shame and re-embrace her identity as a freak. The show is really about liberation and the idea that no matter what age you are, whether you’re 18 or 80, it’s never too late to become liberated and go back to the freak show.

How has it been received by audiences?

I think our audiences have loved it. They have been losing their fucking minds. I’ve always felt that The Tattooed Lady could be like Rocky Horror for this generation because it’s provocative, fun, and campy, but I think it has a very deep emotional core to it as well. It’s like, come for the Rocky Horror vibes, but stay for the emotional catharsis and transformation because it is very moving in the end. I think what’s been surprising in a great way is that a lot of our audiences have been shouting things out at the stage in response to what they’re seeing.

I find that thrilling because normally when you see a piece of musical theater, that’s not allowed, and from what I heard from the box office, not only is this one of the best-selling shows the theater has had in the last five years, but 90 percent of the people who are buying tickets are first time buyers. I believe the subject matter of tattoos, tattoo artists, and freak shows are bringing a whole new audience into Philadelphia Theatre Company, which is very exciting because that’s what you want. You want younger crowds to see shows.

What’s next for The Tattooed Lady? Will it be going to Broadway?

Image via Johanna Austin

I certainly hope it goes to Broadway. It wants to be a big Broadway musical eventually, and I think it will get there because I believe this show really speaks to where we’re at right now in society. The women in the 1800s who were tattooing their bodies are not that different from what’s going on right now in our society and the culture wars of women fighting for autonomy over the choices they make.

A lyric in my show, “my body, my design,” it’s very clear, especially in 2022, what that represents. So, I think it will be seen on a different stage, but the immediate next steps are to identify what the next production is because I think after this, there are some rewrites we want to do, and then we want to get it back up on its feet and continue working.

What are some other future goals you hope to accomplish with your career and platform?

I would like to eventually expand out into TV and film because it’s a new creative horizon, and a lot of my work is really magical and not realism based. In TV and film, there are more opportunities to engage in the full fantasy. I’d also love to score a horror film, create an eyeshadow palette, have my own fashion line, and collaborate on a role-playing video game because I’m also a huge game nerd. If there was some kind of Final Fantasy musical hybrid, I would be all over it.

Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug?

I am also in a queer glam rock band called Tony & the Kiki. I helped co-write and produce our songs and I helped design costumes for our music videos. We actually went viral and got a bunch of followers on TikTok during the pandemic, so that’s another thing I’m very proud of.

Stay up-to-date and connect with Vernon by following them on Instagram. Click HERE for more information on KPOP, and HERE for The Tattooed Lady.


 

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