Starlight agreed with George Takei — in megawatts! — Nov. 8. After making a two-and-a-half hour Broadway debut at the Longacre Theatre in Allegiance, he spent an additional two hours fielding questions from the press and congratulations from fans at the Bryant Park Grill after-party. Through it all, that famous smile of his remained fixed, wide and insistent. If anything, the 78-year-old actor appeared light years younger than the ancient patriarch(s) he'd tottered unsurely across the stage.
The curtain rose on the erstwhile Mr. Sulu in uniform — not in the Enterprise blue of "Star Trek" but in the drab hunter-green of World War II, being trotted out for an annual Pearl Harbor memorial. He begins as the 2001 grandfather version of our leading man (Telly Leung), then reverts to a pre-Pearl Harbor version of Leung's grandfather. In between is a flashback, slow and earnest, over one of the most shameful episodes in American history — WWII's internment of Japanese-Americans.
One thing ticked off Takei, however. "When people say 'Japanese Internment Camp,' I bridle at that," he didn't hesitate to admit. "We weren't imprisoned by the Japanese. We were imprisoned by the United States government — and in our own country!"
He spoke with some degree of authority and justified indignation, too, having spent ages five to nine-and-a-half behind barbed wire in just such an institution in Arkansas. "And they made a musical of it!" he declared a bit incredulously, beaming that smile up again. This hardly seemed the way to go, but Takei, who wrote an autobiography ("shamelessly titled" "To the Stars") with the idea of converting that incident into a drama, was quick to change his tune — to tunes — when he met songwriter Jay Kuo. Kuo argued only a musical could make the audience connect with the experience.
"I really believe this story was preordained to be a musical," Takei said. "In fact, it was the gods of theatre that brought us together — in the theatre." Not only that, the muse that joined them was Broadway's reigning Golden Boy, Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, who attended the opening to see what he had inadvertently wrought.
Kuo, a 47-year-old San Franciscan scouting shows here, recalled encountering Takei at a performance of Forbidden Broadway. There was no mistaking the voice right behind him, and they shop-talked, never expecting to see each other again. The very next night — the theatre word for fate is kismet — they found themselves sitting in the same row at In the Heights, and Kuo noticed Takei crying over a song called "Inutil."
"At intermission," said Kuo, "I asked what had affected him so much about that song. It was about a father's inability to help his daughter, and he told me about his own father's inability to help his family during their internment. It gave me goosebumps.
"I said, 'The story you're telling me could be the basis for a great show. With your permission, in a couple of weeks, I'd like to send you a storyboard and song ideas.'" And they were off. The results, directed by Stafford Arima, touched down on Broadway six years later with a book by Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione.
Watch footage from Allegiance below.
Acito debuted with this one. "What we're proudest of," he said, "is it's a story where everybody's right and everybody's wrong. When I was brought on board, right before the Old Globe production, I looked at the story and said, 'Know what? This is Fiddler on the Roof. The father's right, and the children are right.'"
The day after Allegiance opened — true to Harold Prince's edict — Acito started a new show. "I'm book writer for a show called Chasing Rainbows about Judy Garland's adolescence, from the time she was Frances Gumm till she was cast in 'The Wizard of Oz.' There's a Fun Home undertone, with her father's suicide and gayness. We begin work tomorrow in North Carolina, and it will be at Goodspeed next September."
Lea Salonga, who won a Tony as a teenage "bargirl" in Miss Saigon, has made it to Allegiance matriarch in only 24½ years. "Let's not do numbers," she suggested sweetly. Like Takei and Leung, she has been with the show all six years.
"I really believe in it so much," Salonga said, "and, hopefully, a lot of people will take away with them our message — that the American face comes in many colors."
The other Tony winner in the cast is billed 23rd and last: Scott Wise, 1989's Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Another brilliant dancer on hand is Darren Lee, who, theatregoers might possibly remember, did a spectacular slide in the "Luck Be a Lady" number in the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls.
The internment situation depicted in Allegiance produces two different camps of Japanese-American males, and Salonga has to contend with both of them: Her brother, played by Leung, goes off to war to prove his patriotism in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a fighting unit composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent whose families were confined to internment camps. It became ultimately the most decorated unit for its size and service in U.S. military history.
Then there was the other county heard from — Salonga's character's husband, played by Michael K. Lee, who demanded that, if they were to fight as Americans, they first needed to be treated as Americans and not as traitors in internment camps. "My character is based on a real-life person named Frank Emi," said Lee. "He stood up for his principles and was shunned by the community because it was a time when fighting for your country was the most noble thing that you could do. He served prison time."
Leung said that his character is "a composite of many brave young Japanese-Americans who had such a strong need to prove their love of America that they volunteered to serve in the 442nd combat team." The heroics of that regiment were exalted in a 1951 MGM movie that was titled after the unit's motto, "Go for Broke!"
"I relate so much to this guy because I, too, am the son of immigrant parents," Leung relayed. "I'm Chinese-American, and I feel equally Chinese as I do American."
The most affecting aspect of Allegiance is a father-son conflict that rests on Takei — not inappropriately, since his own father-son angst sparked it in the first place.
"I loved my father very much, and I know he's looking down with great pride and a smile, but I did have that one discussion with him that haunts me still to this day," he admitted. "I was an idealistic teen, and I once challenged him about the internment. In the heat of teenage passion, I said, 'Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter into the internment camp.' Suddenly, our give-and-take of conversation stopped, and there was silence. I immediately sensed that I had hit a nerve, and that silence seemed to be a deterrent. My father looked up and said, 'Well, maybe you're right,' then walked into his bedroom and closed the door. I felt terrible. I wanted to apologize, but he had closed the door. So I thought, 'Well, I'll apologize tomorrow morning.' Then, morning came, and it was kinda awkward, and so I didn't — and the longer you put it off, the more awkward it becomes. And I never apologized to him.
"I consider this show my apology."