When she was 18 years old, Julia Abueva achieved her childhood dream: to become Kim on Miss Saigon. It happened in West End at the 2014 revival of the musical when she was selected as an understudy/alternate for the titular role.
It was also her first time to leave home and live independently. She was then a recent high school graduate of Singapore American School.
Three years later, she is in New York, aiming to achieve new dreams that she set out for herself. She is now starring in KPOP, a high-energy and dynamic off-Broadway musical that is taking New York by storm.
We met with Julia one cool fall afternoon after she finished five grueling hours of rehearsal for the show, which is presented by Ars Nova, “one of NYC’s most adventurous Off Broadway companies” (New York Times), in association with “the foremost incubator of new Asian American theater in the country” (Obie award) Ma-Yi Theater and Woodshed Collective, “the exceptional theater company” that turns “spaces into intimate vortexes of wonder”.
“It’s unreal. Grabe,” Julia told me as she sipped her iced matcha. I had asked her about how it feels like to be a part of one of New York’s hottest shows of the season.
KPOP, which opened for a limited run last September has been extended to two more weeks. It is expected to close on October 21. Tickets to the show have been so hard to get and due to an overwhelming public demand, an extension was the only solution. As of press time, tickets to the extension shows are all sold out.
In a nutshell, KPOP is about how stars get created and polished, whether they are solo stars or members of a girl group of a boyband. The audience gets to see the inner workings of a Korean company trying to cross over the American market.
“We worked hard for this show not knowing how the audience would react. Five-hour rehearsals today and a couple of two-show days, it’s crazy but it’s all worth it,” she said. “I knew in my heart that New York hasn’t seen something like this before And I hope it is not the last that New York gets to see this.”
The 21-year-old Julia moved to New York from London in 2015. For a year she said she was just finding her footing and eventually, she hired an agent to represent her.
It was towards the end of 2016 when her agent told her to audition for a new musical called KPOP. She was adamant at first but her agent insisted that she go and so she did. For her first audition, she performed the Alicia Keys song “If I ain’t got you”.
She was initially auditioning for Tiny D, one of the members of the Super K girl group. On her next set of auditions, Julia performed the same Alicia Keys song, only this time, she sang while playing the piano.
Julia recalled her follow up audition.
The first few notes on the piano were off. She knew it and she asked if she could do it from the top. “I knew I was screwed,” she said. Once she got the flow and the rhythm, her audition ran smoothly.
Then she got another call, for the dance callback.
For anyone who has seen the show, one would immediately notice and agree that the musical’s choreography is topnotch. The dance moves of both Super K and F8 showcased the performers’ magnificent dance moves.
“This was the fun-nest audition I’ve ever been,” Julia shared. “The moment I entered the room, the energy was just infectious. And they’re all so beautiful and young!”
After the dance call, Julia said to herself that she even if she doesn’t get the part, she’d still be thankful because the entire audition process she had to go through taught her lessons she could use as she trains her sights on Broadway.
Around that time, she was also being considered to be a part of Fun Home in Singapore but she couldn’t say yes to them because they were waiting for word from the KPOP production. Her agent told them the dilemma so they had to hasten the process. Julia was called back to read for both Jessica and Mwe.
“Jessica was really my choice. Growing up watching Nicole Scherzinger – siyempre Pinay – and her group, I wanted to have that experience of being the lead in a girl group,” Julia shared.
A week later, she got the call. She was in and they were offering the role of Jessica/Sonoma to her.
And for the past month or so, Julia has been enthralling audiences with her crystal voice, amazing dance prowess and intense acting chops, making her an instant triple threat in the industry.
Immersive, Off-Broadway Musical Enthralls NYC Audience
There have been shows in New York that were immersive, such as Here Lies Love, the musical about the life of Imelda Marcos and Sleep No More, one of the more successful examples of this new kind of theatrical performance.
The similarity with Here Lies Love ends with the stage and dance floor setting. With Sleep No More, it is like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel and the audience has the option to follow which characters they liked. With KPOP, there was organized immersion in such a way that the entire audience was divided into what seemed like more than a dozen sub-groups after the opening number. Upon entering the theater, we were given color-coded wristbands with a character’s name printed on it.
We followed the character assigned to us and we were with him for a few minutes before we got reunited with a few more audience members to watch the boyband F8 break down before our very eyes. We stayed with this group for a while until we came face to face with Mwe and eventually, the girls of Super K. The entire audience got back together for the grand finale, an extravagant mini-concert showcasing the talents of Mwe, F8 and Super K.
On the first week of rehearsals, they were told to get ready for KPOP boot camp. And they were not kidding.
“They made us learn all the dances and songs during the first week. It was quite exhausting and rigorous and rehearsal hours were long,” Julia shared. “The production had to adjust accordingly because there were many moving parts and the show had to be as cohesive as possible.”
KPOP has evolved from its original state to its present incarnation, some songs and dances were cut to make sure that the story progressed well. The writers made changes on the characters’ dialogues because they knew that the cast would be interacting with the audience so their characters’ traits should be reflected.
KPOP was conceived by Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim (The Model American, HBO’s “Girls”) and features a book by Kim, music & lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon (The View UpStairs), an immersive design by Woodshed Collective, choreography by Bessie-nominee Jennifer Weber (The Hip Hop Nutcracker, TruTV’s “Face Off”) and is directed by Teddy Bergman (Empire Travel Agency).
“I am so lucky to be a part of a class that is so insanely talented. They are good hearted people who just want to work hard and come up with something that we can be proud of,” Julia said.
The Road to Broadway
Julia recalls the time when she moved to London to achieve her dream.
“I was fresh out of high school then, very young, so it was like my college and I had to learn living by myself for the first time and dealing with people. It wasn’t the easiest time of my life, I will say that. From rehearsals to wearing the bikini onstage to the sex scene, it was all shocking to me,” she shared.
It was a very good learning experience for her because she believes that chapter in her life prepared her for her present life now in New York.
“It taught me to work hard and never take the craft for granted because you never know when your next gig is gonna be,” she quipped. “It was hard for me but I think I learned so much and It prepared me to face whatever New York had in store for me.”
From Miss Saigon in the West End to moving to New York, Julia had to work extra hard.
In between jobs, she realized how much she loved performing and how much she loved her job that she instantly regretted the few moments she felt tired doing Miss Saigon and how it was getting old back then.
“I am still finding myself and learning more about me,” she admitted.
Julia was four years old when she moved to Singapore from Manila with her family because her mom, who had a job at Procter & Gamble International was assigned a regional role there. Then they would go back to Manila every summer to be with their relatives.
At a young age, she began performing in Manila as well, joining the concert of Monique Wilson as the young Monique. She would later perform with Lea Salonga in three of her concerts as young Lea.
She graduated high school from the Singapore American School. She wanted to go to NYU or London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and then Miss Saigon happened.
Julia is the grandchild of two former presidents of the University of the Philippines – Jose Abueva is her grandfather and the first UP woman president Emerlinda Roman is her grandmother
“I’m the misplaced one. Everyone in the family is either in finance or a doctor. And I’m like ‘I’m going to try my luck on Broadway!’,” she said laughing.
Julia was discovered in Singapore when she was 7 years old which just means that she has been performing for more than half her life.
While she has not set a timeline for her dreams, Julia said she hopes that in five years, she want to say “I’ve already made it to Broadway and I’ve played a dream role or two”.
Her first indie film here is coming out soon. It is called Stella’s Last Weekend and they’re hoping to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival next year.
“I love musical theater but I also enjoyed the experience of doing the film so maybe I could also start doing TV and film. My focus is just to keep on working and as long as I am working, I’m fine,” she said
And because her schedule is freeing up a bit, she started doing auditions again.
In between, she plays with her dog named Ballon, a petite golden doodle adopted from a family who moved to Japan.
She also runs, does yoga, attend dance classes, take voice lessons and acting classes.
“I just want to keep honing my craft and improving what I have so that I am always ready for these constant auditions,” she remarked.