It’s difficult these days for young K-pop groups to stand out. With the industry’s rapid growth—due in large part to its international explosion—comes new groups, more talent, and thus, more competition. Everyone has catchy songs and perfect performances; everyone has immense skill and a passionate fan base; everyone is hungry to make it big.
Enter Korean Mnet competition show Road to Kingdom (and its girl group predecessor, Queendom), which premiered in April and pitted underrated boy groups—from newcomers like TOO to more senior squads like Pentagon—against each other in a series of extravagant performances to help grow their fan bases and, ultimately, crown a winner. Road to Kingdom’s champion would take home not only increased renown and a shiny trophy, but a pass to the big leagues: entrance into Mnet’s upcoming series, Kingdom, the sequel that will pit Road to Kingdom’s winner against a to-be-determined but likely fearsome lineup of more experienced groups. As the seven competing groups proved, it took more than talent, passion, or myriad fans to win Road to Kingdom—it also took strategy. And eventual champions The Boyz, a young, 11-member group from Cre.Ker entertainment, played to win from the minute the game began.
A few days before being crowned Road to Kingdom champions, The Boyz crowd into a conference room near midnight KST to talk to me over Zoom (via a translator, with the exception of English-fluent members Kevin, Jacob, and Eric). I initially feel guilty about the timing, thinking I’m keeping them from their beds after what was no doubt a long day. But as a slew of iced coffees are delivered midway through the interview, I realize I’m wrong. “We have to go back and practice after this,” chipper, chatty Eric, the group’s youngest, informs me with a grin. “Our practices end in the morning.”
You’d never know The Boyz are in the midst of perhaps the most tiring stretch of their young careers. Whether it’s the caffeine or not, the group seems to have an endless amount of energy. That was certainly one of the takeaways from Road to Kingdom, where The Boyz repeatedly pulled off risky, crowd-pleasing stunts that helped them dominate the first half of the show with three consecutive first-place rankings, and ultimately win it all. In their own words, here’s how they pulled it all off, from showy swordsmanship to fearless fire tricks.
While Other Groups Were Dancing, They Studied the Blade
The Boyz wasted no time getting started. For Road to Kingdom’s first 90-second dance challenge, they kicked off their aptly named “Sword of Victory” performance by launching main dancer Q over the rest of the group to catch a sword in mid-air, transitioning upon landing into a lightning-quick dance break. It was a difficult stunt to start with, and it didn’t help that their practice room ceiling was too short, a problem they solved by taking to their company lobby to practice tossing their relentlessly cheerful frontman. But ultimately the performance hinged just as much on the throw of the sword, a move perfected by the stately Younghoon, The Boyz’s resident actor.
Q: When I first heard that I was going to be thrown, I was actually so scared. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. But once we repeated it a lot, and once Younghoon and other members got the timing right, it shifted from impossible to possible. And eventually, even when Younghoon would throw it wrong, I would be able to catch the sword in the center.
Younghoon: If I was to throw it wrong, it would feel like I was messing up the whole performance, so I felt really pressured. I practiced so much—I threw it literally, like, thousands of times.
The “Danger”ous Crown Heist
Endless practice was key for subsequent stunts as well, as The Boyz defied gravity again for the following challenge in a glitzy, heist-style cover of Taemin’s “Danger.” In the flashy performance, which features the group stealing the Road to Kingdom crown from a glass case, the whole group jumped and slid around the stage (while a few emerged from thick fog using well-hidden trampolines). But the man of the hour was fiery rapper Sunwoo, who jumped off one member and over three others in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it game of mid-air leap frog. As one Twitter user put it, “this man trusts this group with his life.”
Sunwoo: I was really scared, because I was afraid that I might get hurt, or the ones beneath me might get hurt. The members below me, they were the ones without fear. They made the performance possible.
Eric: We couldn’t have done it without teamwork and the amount of time we put into practice. And to be honest, Sunwoo did it better in practice and rehearsal. But at least he didn’t fall.
Jacob: In practice, Sunwoo would usually step on my back for the final part of the jump. During the actual performance, Sunwoo stepped on my shoulder—I was really worried. But he landed, and him being safe was the most important part. After that it was all fun and games.
The Boyz Are on Fire
The fun certainly amped up from there: The following week, The Boyz performed a medieval-style arrangement of their song “Reveal” that contained too many highlights to name, including fight choreography, a living painting, death drops, a striking Chajeon Nori–inspired structure, and a very real fireball. Unlike the other stunts, The Boyz are playfully unwilling to explain the logistics behind this performance—especially the moment when angular dancer Juyeon and boisterous vocalist Hyunjae appear to light their hands on fire.
Juyeon: The fire came out of my hand.
Eric: It’s a trade secret.
Kevin: He’s a firebender!
Juyeon: To be honest, when Hyunjae and I extend our arms, Q would be kneeling below, and he would light flash paper in Hyunjae’s hand. You wouldn’t see Q lighting it because of the camera angle. The camera would only show our hands and Q would light it up from underneath.
Kevin: The flash paper itself is super flammable and it burns super fast, so even though the heat is really high, it just didn’t sustain itself long enough for Hyunjae to get burned. It’s just an instant flash.
Juyeon: Honestly ... Hyunjae’s hands smelled delicious.
Hyunjae: Yeah, I literally smelled like barbecue.
Sunwoo: Another move we didn’t think we’d be able to do was the Chajeon Nori stunt, which the choreographer based on a traditional Korean game. The first time we went up on the rope, it was actually a lot higher than we thought and it was a lot shakier since it was being supported by people. There were actually a few times Hyunjae almost fell off, and we kept burning our hands on the rope.
Hyunjae: That also smelled like barbecue.
The Show Must Go On
Despite their penchant for danger, The Boyz’s winning streak could only last so long. During the fourth week of performances, they earned a third place ranking during a collaboration with fellow competitor Oneus for a cover of Sunmi’s “Heroine.” This time, they decided to pivot to a deeper message and tell the story of their journey to becoming idols. Using props from their own company, including clothes that they actually wore as trainees, The Boyz and Oneus depicted scenes from their auditions, rehearsals, makeup rooms, and concerts. Only five members of The Boyz took part in the collaboration—group leader Sangyeon, main vocalist New, rapper Sunwoo, and dancers Juyeon and Q—but the rest of the group got involved in their own way.
Kevin: Watching it come together and watching the story flow into a concert scene where they dance and laugh together, it really struck us as team members supporting them.
Eric: Kevin cried!
Kevin: You cried too!
Jacob: We all cried.
Sangyeon: I think the performance was perfect. As we were preparing, we got a lot closer to Oneus. We talked a lot, joked around, and made lots of good memories. Because of that, when we were performing, we were able to have a better synchronization. We were able to tell our story better because we had gotten so close while we were preparing for the show. I also became close with ONF’s J-Us and Pentagon’s Yeo One. We made a lot of good friends over the course of Road to Kingdom.
Contemporary K-pop Meets Barefoot Beethoven
The same day as their “Heroine” cover, The Boyz performed an additional solo performance: a graceful, contemporary cover of VIXX’s “Shangri-La” mixed with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The performance was light on stunts, focusing more on intricate choreography and detailed formations—with the exception of one strenuous sequence, in which Sunwoo (who is notoriously afraid of heights) stands on a door suspended in the air by four other members. After Haknyeon spends several moments detailing to me, in English, just how heavy Sunwoo and the door were, I have to ask: Of all 10 of the remaining members, why was New—their slight, delicate main vocalist—one of the ones made to carry such a heavy set piece? The room erupts into laughter as New tosses his pastel hair back to shoot me a look of devastating shade.
New: Why not??
Eric: [laughing] He’s actually strong!
Sunwoo: Strong! Strong baby!
Juyeon: Muscle man! Muscle man!
Sunwoo: Actually, when I first heard that New was going to be one of the members carrying me, I was very worried.
[Here, Sunwoo earns himself the full force of New’s death stare.]
I thought to myself, I shouldn’t put weight onto the area that New was carrying, but he was a lot stronger than I had expected. It was only a success because I put a lot of trust in him. New is the star of the show!
[The group applauds.]
Haknyeon: New! New! New! New!
Sunwoo: I don’t know why I’m always put on tall things. Maybe the choreographer doesn’t like me. [Laughs.] I’m kidding, but I don’t know why I’m always at the top. In the beginning, it might have been a pure chance that it was me, but in order to continue the story, I guess it made sense that I’d be the one going up. I keep doing it, but no matter how many times I go on something high, it’s still scary and I don’t get used to it.
Q: “Shangri La” was a memorable performance. We all really liked the human piano moment.
Kevin: If you watch carefully, when the piano dance break happens, our formation actually spells out V-I-X-X.
Eric: Not a lot of people know about that.
Sunwoo: VIXX! We are geniuses!
The Boyz Are Playing for Keeps
During the Road to Kingdom finale last week, as The Boyz performed “Checkmate,” the new song that propelled them to victory, Sunwoo went higher than ever before—and fell a lot further. The final stage, as Sunwoo put it, was the Avengers: Infinity War of their Road to Kingdom performances. The introduction began with references to all their past songs: Younghoon kicked things off in another sick hat with his “Danger” pocket watch, and it culminated in Sunwoo’s final ascent up a massive staircase with sword and crown in hand. He then plummeted backwards off the final level onto a mattress far below—all before the song even officially began.
But the most buzz-worthy sequence of “Checkmate” saw New, Kevin, and Sangyeon placing two black and white chess pieces onto a mini game board; then, as they drew the board up into a cube, a massive life-sized version behind them was revealed, with Juyeon in black and Hyunjae in white acting as human chess pieces battling inside. The cube sequence was, in part, Kevin’s idea, but it wasn’t the first time The Boyz’s unofficial ideas man got involved on the artistic side of things. Kevin also came up with the “Danger” intro based on “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago (classic theater kid), as well as designing custom accessories for “Reveal” and much of the creative concept behind their “Shangri La” interpretation.
Kevin: The cube scene was supposed to represent our strategy and how we thought of everything in advance. In chess, it’s all about how you think of your moves and every possible outcome in advance, so we wanted to show how all our work on this show has led us to the final checkmate.
New: It’s the best performance of all our performances.
Hyunjae: For the dance break with Juyeon, it was my first time dancing with a rope. We weren’t very experienced in expressing ourselves in this manner, so Juyeon and I practiced a lot.
Haknyeon: Another part that was hard is where Eric throws a cane and I catch it and dance. But the cane was heavier than I expected, so it took a lot of practice to find the right balance.
Kevin: We want people to pay close attention to the final line in the song, “다시 한 번 시작 되는 Game,” which means “A game that is starting once again.” We’re going to Kingdom.
The Game Continues
Road to Kingdom, despite crowning an overall winner, was designed to allow up to two groups to advance to compete on Kingdom. If one group had won the overall accumulation of Road to Kingdom points, but lost the live finale voting to another group, both would have moved on to the next show. But the loophole ultimately went to waste—The Boyz swept both categories.
Sangyeon: It was very painful that only one team could continue onto the next round. But of course I wanted The Boyz to win because we want to be able to show even more performances on Kingdom.
Eric: It’s such an honor to have won Road to Kingdom. It was only possible because of all our fans that loved and supported us. I think we all realized how every group is so hardworking and how good they are, how talented they are. We just want all the groups that competed to be more well known and to succeed.
Younghoon: As we were filming Road to Kingdom, I saw that we were able to pull off any genre. That made me realize that our team can do anything, and it helped us grow.
Sunwoo: We’re looking to challenge ourselves with newer concepts and images of our team for Kingdom. Our goal is always the same. It’s for us to be able to show ourselves more to the public as well as prove our ability as a group.