Name: Helen Park
Hometown: Busan, South Korea
Where do you live? – New York, NY
What does it mean to have a voice? Having a voice means to tell stories through your passion and build bridges between cultures and languages.
How did you find your voice? I found my voice through my compositions.
What event or series of events led to you finding your voice?
I was born in Busan, South Korea, and I grew up in Korea, Canada, and the United States. I moved around a lot throughout my life – even within those three countries. My upbringing gave me a lot of great opportunities to meet and experience various types of people and cultures. It’s amazing that now, I have so many friends around the world. Being bilingual in English and Korean is pretty neat too. However, at some point in my life, I did feel like I had no culture or language of my own. I found myself somewhere in between the two cultures – American and Korean – and grappled with the boxes and labels people were using to categorize me. That’s when I delved more into my escape and passion: music.
Tell me about when you finally found your voice.
When I was 19, I was preparing to go to medical school. Piano performance was my second major and composing music was my biggest hobby, but I didn’t think I had what it took to make an actual impact through my music. At one point, I found myself at a crossroads where I needed to choose between medicine or music. I decided that I had to at least try and see if my music would speak to other people. I listened to and wrote different kinds of music. I dreamed of communicating with others through the language of music. From pop to jazz, classical to gospel, I realized that there was something about melody, harmony, and groove that evoked emotions and brought people together. That’s when I started to really voice myself through my compositions. At first, no one seemed to notice. It felt like it was only therapeutic to myself. Then slowly, I began to understand the language. After many years I ultimately became a composer and started to write for musical theater.
How valuable is walking in other people’s shoes, or empathy?
I think writing good musical theater, film, or TV requires walking in other people’s shoes. For a musical theater writer like me, I believe it’s even more important to explore what emotional and spiritual journey people go through. The reason I like to write about communities people don’t normally care about is because good musicals have the power to bring people into a judgement free zone. When you hear someone’s innermost feelings sung, you can’t help but relate and feel empathy. This is why I’m drawn to the power of music. I’m always looking for stories that need to be told in this art form. I love telling stories with my music and hope to shed light on communities and voices that are often marginalized or ignored. Despite differences in cultures, ethnicities, and languages, music has the power to connect people.
How has your voice influenced others?
My first show was an off-Broadway show called KPOP. It had a score that had both English and Korean lyrics. The characters in the show were ethnic Koreans with a predominantly Asian cast. When the book writer, Jason Kim, was working on the script, we had many conversations about the experience of an ethnic Korean in America. Every experience is different, and we really tried to include a variety of stories in our show. You don’t often get to see
often fully developed, multi-dimensional Asian characters in the media. We wanted to do something about that. We tried to express who our characters really were, flaws and all. Many people who came to the show told me afterward that they were positively affected by the score, and that they’ve become more interested in the Korean pop genre, as well as the experience of Koreans and Korean-Americans in this country. This is when I realized that there’s something powerful in the medium of theater: it actually can impact people in a positive and uplifting way.
I also remember after my recent concert (“Helen Park in Concert”) which was “unapologetically bilingual”, an African-American girl wrote to say that the show moved her deeply and that she now has a different perspective in life. I understood that even a very culture-specific work with incomprehensible language
, can touch people’s hearts. My songs from KPOP don’t just speak to Korean or Asian audiences; they speak to people of all colors. It really inspired me to continue writing and made me feel so grateful for what I do.
Where will your voice lead next?
I would like to explore and get to know more communities in the world. A lot of people don’t get a chance to reveal themselves through the media or news. I want to make an effort to find them, see them, and find a way to connect with them. Also, my show KPOP is being redeveloped for Broadway. I’m pretty stoked about that! Finally, this fall, my first film for which I wrote songs for, called Over the Moon, came out on Netflix. It’s an animated musical feature directed by the Academy Award-winning director and Disney legend, Glen Keane.
Helen Park is the first Asian composer or lyricist to win a Lucille Lortel Award and a three-time Drama Desk Award Nominee. Her recent work includes KPOP, her off-Broadway musical debut for which she wrote Music and Lyrics, Music Produced and Orchestrated. The show received a sold-out, extended run at Ars Nova, and was awarded the 2018 Richard Rodgers Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. KPOP is currently being re-developed for the Broadway stage. This fall (2020), her first film, Over the Moon, came out on Netflix. It is the first film for which she composed songs for. Helen is an alumnus of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop (Advanced).