Some people learn about the World War II Japanese-American internment camps not in the school history lessons, not in the recent news (unless it’s cited in the context for discussing a Muslim-American registry), but in an autobiography by Star Trek star George Takei. Or Allegiance, the legacy-musical project he produced and starred in.
With book by Marc Acito and lyrics by Jay Kuo, Allegiance enjoyed a Broadway stint from November 2015 to February 2016. It was loosely based on Takei’s childhood during the internment of Japanese-Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Allegiance was granted a video recording, which was recently screened as a one-night Fathom event as George Takei’s Allegiance: The Broadway Musical On The Big Screen.
To sum up my deliberations on Allegiance itself, its critics gave legitimate reproach of its melodramatic plot twists and unmemorable melodies ranging from forgettable dry-lyrical-prose to passably Broadway-conventional. But it sustained the dignity of its narrative and the psychological dilemmas of survivors. Even if the characters slip into archetypical functions, they are granted sympathy via powerhouse acting by lead Telly Leung as the Americanized Sam and Lea Salonga as his more Japanese-minded sister Kei.
Commendation and criticism aside, it’s a holiday miracle I had the chance offer my own judgment.
Stage productions are alive with breathing characters, but there’s also a spatial hierarchy to contend with. When I viewed Sting’s musical The Last Ship at the Chicago theater, I patted myself on the back for obtaining affordable first floor seating, only to discover the catch: a partial impediment of a pillar in front of me (to be fair, I was warned of “possible obstruction” before purchase). Depending on the current affordability of tickets, theatre-goers can attest to being shifted around balconies, second-floor mezzanines, third-floor galleries, etc.
On camera, you capture the beads of sweat after an intense dance sequence, the jarring parallel of a Japanese-American politician delivering a scripted and sanitized reassurance to the American citizens (the “don’t worry, America, the Japanese-Americans are so patriotic they erased their Japanese culture for your comfort” brand of propaganda) but then cut to the prisoners doing a traditional Japanese dance within the drudgery of the camps. The medium grants it the aesthetic angles of edited cuts: a wide-shot of the beauty of the set, a close-up of Salonga and Leung’s expressions contorting into anguish, and then a close-up on Takei’s contemplative countenance. The most striking close-up: when Lea Salonga’s character recollects the Purple Heart medal torn off her brother’s American uniform—both a symbol of her resentment for her brother’s forfeit of Japanese pride and his battlefield traumas when fighting for America.
One misgiving I had with the Allegiance Fathom-event screening was that while I was busy wiping my eyes, I ended up sitting through the end credits with a few audience members. Surprise, there was more post-credits! The theater didn’t alert me to “stay past the end credits” for a behind-the-scenes documentary. I would have missed the tragic story in which Takei recalls blaming his late father for following the government’s orders and taking the family into the camps and became haunted when his father accepted the culpability. Takei tells of an apology he wished he gave his father, reflecting the musical’s resonate theme: reconciling the different survival outlets. Also, the documentary reminded me that Allegiance, a stage musical, is the first to cover the subject matter in a relatively mainstream occasion. With its registry of World War II hits, Hollywood has little coverage of the Japanese-American interment. The Holocaust has Schindler's List and D-Day gets Saving Private Ryan. The filming and distribution of Allegiance, even if it was just a one-night screening with a possible Blu-Ray or streaming release, expands not only the accessibility of the stage productions, but also knowledge of a hush-hush subject.
Live theatre is intrinsically inimitable and lacks a rewind feature. No performance is exactly the same every night. An actor can ad-lib. A singer like Lea Salonga could belt a soaring riff—even above her usual riffing—that she’ll never do again. Even the occasional screw-ups are precious. Errors and flubs don’t end up on a movie editing bay’s cutting floor. Even when tour productions like Wicked or Lion King are made available in other states beyond their existing Broadway runs, a different cast will have varying fidelity to the original Broadway previews.
This is as relevant as ever with Hamilton, a popular demand situation where ticket purchases are nigh impossible for those who can afford both tickets and pilgrimages to New York. Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton has expressed hope that his musical could see an accessible widespread distribution on the screen. But in its case, a screening of Hamilton would be both a preservation and extension of its first Broadway cast. Unlike Hamilton, Allegiance did not see ongoing longevity on the Broadway stage and its theatrical screening is mostly an effort of preservation. And even if it lasted long enough to replace Takei and its entire original cast, no performance night can match the meta-poignancy of George Takei inhabiting the role of a remorseful veteran who realizes it’s too late to make amends—reflecting Takei’s yearning to apologize to his late father for blaming him.
When you are watching a stage production recording, you are fully aware of what you’ve missed, that you weren’t there to hear Takei’s confessional cry, that you weren’t in the room where it truly happened (Hamilton-allusion intended). Your chance to catch Allegiance in New York with George Takei has passed. But at least you get an idea of what you missed.
I am not suggesting that editing cuts will replace the adrenaline-thrill of witnessing it live on stage. Film recordings dilute the experience, but cameras do offer a consistent but still momentous framework: the close-up sweat accompanied by the lush wide-shot of the set. Film is not as visually tangible as live theatre, but it affords many angles of a story.