“In the spring of 1942, soldiers with bayonets marched up to our home in Los Angeles, and ordered our family out. Our only crime was looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor only months before.” These words are spoken by Geroge Takei over a tumultuous piece of music on the second to last track of the Allegiance cast recording, which only has six tracks in all. He had only recently turned five when this happened, but he knew something big was going on, and, as he goes on to say, it has been his “life’s mission” to ensure that no one ever forgets what it was. With its opening on Broadway, mission accomplished.
A while back, The New York Times ran an article about a similarly under-discussed aspect of World War II history, concerning the liberation of concentration camps in Europe. According to Eric Lichtblau’s article, “Surviving the Nazis, Only to Be Jailed by America,” the Nazi guards were removed from power, but were sometimes bunked with Jewish prisoners, who remained prisoners even under General George Patton’s leadership, because the Americans were “overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees.” America is one of the big, reluctant heroes of World War II, and as such, our major contributions to bringing about the war’s end tend to overshadow the things we should have handled a lot better, like deciding whether or not to imprison over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps.
Allegiance, inspired by Takei with a book by Marc Acito and a score by Jay Kuo, tells of the plight of the Japanese Americans, serving an important function of art, which is to keep such stories alive. Takei was five when it happened and is seventy-seven now, as are many of the youngest victims of that chapter of our history. First hand accounts of these events are important to have, and that musical theatre was chosen as the form for this one to take is an honor for musical theatre, which can often ease the swallowing of such bitter pills, but in which, at least these days, comedy tends to rule.
Musical theatre does have a bit of a history when it comes to stories of Asian and American cultures meeting and clashing, and Broadway’s biggest names tend to be involved. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted C. Y. Lee’s novel The Flower Drum Song, about the Chinese immigrant experience, into a musical, which David Henry Hwang re-wrote in the early 2000s for a more authentic revival. Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, written with book writer John Weidman, is about America making (well, forcing) contact with Japan in 1853, and the changes in Japanese culture that ensued. A kind of musical montage at the end of the show, “Next,” sometimes updated for new productions, speeds through Japan’s increasingly successful interactions with the western world, though while it includes the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there is no mention of America’s internment camps.
Jay Kuo’s involvement is also of note, since these stories about Chinese immigrants and historical Japanese have been musicalized by white men, a piece of trivia skewered wonderfully in The Drowsy Chaperone. Robert Lopez is the only person of Asian decent to win the Tony Award for Best Score, for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. In another Times piece from this weekend, an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda and his fellow actors in his musical, Hamilton, Miranda is says of the non-white founding fathers in his cast, “That’ll be the note that goes with the school productions: If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up.” And why should it? 1776 already did that.
Here’s hoping the Broadway musical is having a diversity moment. The King and I , Hamilton, The Gin Game are some of the most popular tickets right now and all star ethnically diverse casts. This spring Miss Saigon will also make its way back to New York only adding to the opportunities for actors of color to be cast.
It all adds up, and Allegiance is an important part of the equation, because in addition to reminding us of the past, art must be a measure of the present and a guide for the future. There is no predicting how Allegiance’s Broadway life will go, but that it's here at all, is something to be proud of.