Why ALLEGIANCE Will Be an Important Musical of the 2015-2016 Season
Yes, Hamilton has opened to rave reviews and audiences are experiencing a rare elation accompanied by facial tics and bladder leakage where this innovative musical is concerned. A bit like Hillary Clinton, the production has been preordained to be a big winner and, come this time next year, it will have several accolades under its belt. However, just like Bernie Sanders has proven to be an important force in the primary elections and could possibly steal some of Clinton’s thunder, the musical Allegiance is coming to town as its own important force of musical theatre.
With music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, a book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione and Kup, Allegiance tells the story of a Japanese-American family who are placed in a United States internment camp during World War II. Stafford Arima will direct the piece that will feature a trio of exciting leads: Lea Salonga, Telly Leung and George Takei. This will be the first almost entirely Asian-led production of a Broadway musical since a revival of Flower Drum Song back in 2002 (that also featured Salonga and Leung).
Why is Allegiance such an important musical? Well, musical theatre (and theatre in general) has not been particularly good about telling the stories of Asian-Americans in dramatic form. The most well-known example is the aforementioned Flower Drum Song which, although it was based on the Chinese-American author C.Y. Lee’s novel, the musical was laden with stereotypes. The revival (or revisal as it is better described) attempted to rectify this but never quite managed to get it right. Other than that, the story of Asian-Americans has been sparsely represented on Broadway. Sure, we have seen Asians appear in The King and I, Miss Saigon, Chess, and Shogun, but where are the stories of their American experience? We have a tendency to lump all of the Asians into one category, forgetting that those who immigrated from China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc., each have their own distinct stories. Within those nationalities, there is no room for generalizations as each family and person has their own unique experience. It’s not the paper lanterns, rice and gongs that we have insinuated onstage, in film and on television. That was always insulting.
Japanese internment camps are one of the blemishes on our nation’s history. In fact, it is so glossed over in our social studies and history lessons that we as a country barely acknowledge (or know) that it happened. Authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this incarceration of Japanese-Americans showed no rhyme or reason in how people were chosen. In fact, an investigation by the Carter administrations in the late 1970s revealed that there was little reason for the United States to take this measure and that there was little to no disloyalty from Japanese-Americans that would necessitate such actions. It was clearly an act of racism and prejudice. In other words: people of one origin were persecuted unjustly, ripped from their homes and forced to live in substandard housing created out of stables and migrant worker camps or hastily constructed tar-paper covered barracks without plumbing or places to cook. Conditions were to be kept at the minimum standard provided to the lowest-ranking members of the United States military, but that seldom happened. Medical care was marginal, food was substandard, and let us not forget that we were unjustly imprisoning people on the basis of their ethnic origins. Allegiance the musical is telling an important story that has been swept under the rug.
I am excited for Allegiance to open on Broadway after a successful run at the Old Globe Theatre in 2012. How exciting to see Lea Salonga and her powerful voice return to the Broadway stage, Telly Leung get a role that is equal to his myriad talents, and to have George Takei join us in the world of the Broadway Musical. Even better, how wonderful to have a Broadway musical open that tells the story of a Japanese-American family, told without stereotype and that reveals an important piece of the American story, albeit a shameful one. I love when theatre has the audacity to delve into the truth of the human experience and doesn’t hide behind gimmicks and supposed cleverness. Allegiance is an important musical that I wish every success.