"In America, It's Better I am Told" : Immigration in Musicals

Aaron Netsky

In hopes that I would one day see Allegiance, the musical inspired by the time actor George Takei spent living, with his family, in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, I avoided learning too much about the plot or score. When it opened on Broadway, I saw the show, and it was so much more complex than I imagined it would be. Not five-year-old George Takei, but families forced out of their homes, Japanese lobbyists and soldiers doing what they have to do to undo the damage done by their mother country’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and generations of Japanese debating what it truly means to be loyal. It is a tapestry of heartbreakingly beautiful stories, and underscoring the whole thing is patriotism.

Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) and Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe) never meet, but they work together to prove to the American government that Japanese Americans love the United States just as much as every other American, and therefore should not be imprisoned. Some are immigrants, like Sammy’s father and grandfather, some were born here, like Sammy and his sister, but all are suspect because they resemble the people who attacked Hawaii. Sammy’s father came to this land, like so many immigrants, for opportunities, to make a better life for his own children, as he tells Sammy when disappointed with his son’s academic performance. In this way, Allegiance fits perfectly in the American musical theatre tradition of telling stories of immigration and getting by in the new world.

It is no surprise that musical theatre writers over the years have gravitated to the theme of immigration. Many of Broadway’s earliest artists, like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Cy Coleman, were either immigrants themselves or born to immigrants. My great-uncle Harold Katz, who wrote the musical Happy Hunting as Harold Karr, was the son of a man who, as a boy, fled Romania with his family under circumstances similar to those faced by the residents of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof. And where does Tevye take his family at the end of that musical? America. Specifically, “New York, America.” The von Trapp family from The Sound of Music is based on a real family that ended up in Vermont.

Reasons for coming to America vary from experience to experience, and so from musical to musical, but often the sentiment is expressed with more enthusiasm than Tevye could muster at the end of Fiddler. Titanic is a musical with a lot going on, but the action pauses so that various Kates can imagine how much better their lives will be in America. Whether to be a “lady’s maid,” “governess,” or “sewing girl,” they all have their ambitions for their arrival in America, where “it’s better I am told.” America also seduces Manjiro, one of the central characters in Pacific Overtures, who is based on Nakahama Manjiro, one of the first Japanese to visit America, and a key player in the “Opening of Japan.” In the song “Poems,” as Kayama sings of his love for his wife, Manjiro sings about how great America is.

And it doesn’t stop when they arrive, although the ways of the new world and their homelands sometimes find themselves at odds. Flower Drum Song, based on a novel of almost the same name, highlights the love story, but is ultimately about two generations of Chinese immigrants, and how that generational difference effects how easily they get along in their new home. In West Side Story, when some of the Puerto Rican women start to wax poetic about how much better Puerto Rico is, Anita has an answer for each argument, championing America. One of the best parts of In the Heights is when “Abuela” Claudia reminisces about first coming to America from Cuba with her mother, and how hard they had to work, but at least there was work. “Paciencia y Fe.” Later, “Abuela” and the musical’s narrator, Usnavi, recall how he was named after the words his father saw on a ship as they arrived from the Dominican Republic to start their new life in America. “It really said U. S. Navy, but hey, I worked with what they gave me.”

As the generations have gone by, the immigration story has been a less frequent presence in musicals, and it should not go unnoticed that very few musicals tell stories about Native Americans. In a few years, don’t be surprised if there’s a musical about a family of Syrian refugees trying to enter the United States amidst heated domestic debate. The language of that debate has been compared to the conduct of the United States government during World War II, including the turning away of Jewish refugees from Europe, and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in internment camps, as portrayed in Allegiance. When the prisoners are asked to declare their loyalty, the divide within the musical comes into sharp relief: Sammy wants to serve in the U. S. military, but his father doesn’t want to deny his heritage. After all, moving to a new place doesn’t mean you become a different person, but that, in turn, can make the move all the harder. It’s a drama, but it’s also, ultimately a love story, and love stories go very well with music.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), on which he covers musicals that have immigrated from all corners of the globe.