An Interview With Jay Kuo, Composer and Lyricist of ‘Allegiance.’ A film of the Broadway Musical Will Show in Theaters Across the Country on Tuesday, December 13th

Allegiance, the 2015 Broadway musical based on the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II, will be shown in movie theaters around the country for one night only on December 13th, 2016. Allegiance was inspired by George Takei, who stars in the musical along with Tony Award-winner Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon) and Telly Leung (Glee). Takei and his family spent three years in an internment camp during the war.

Allegiance is about the Japanese experience in WWII but it also echoes the struggle for acceptance faced by various ethnic groups throughout US history. At the heart of the story are Sammy and Kei, a brother and sister coming of age in an internment camp. Sammy (Telly Leung) enlists in the US Army in spite of the indignity of being in a forced relocation camp. Meanwhile, his older sister Kei (Lea Salonga) reacts to their incarceration by feeling very angry at the US government and siding with the resistance.

I had the pleasure of seeing Allegiance on Broadway and I loved its humanizing tale of Japanese Americans struggling to come to terms with their cultural identity. I was thrilled to hear that Allegiance will be seen by a wider audience on December 13th when it is shown in movie theaters across the nation.

Allegiance composer and lyricist Jay Kuo and I recently chatted about why the show is more relevant today than ever.

Composer and lyricist Jay Kuo.
Composer and Lyricist Jay Kuo.

Nicole: Let’s start with the basics. At the heart of Allegiance are brother and sister Sam and Kei and their very different reactions to being forced into an internment camp. Why is this show called Allegiance?

Jay: Because this is the very complicated question that being forced into an internment camp required each person to answer. First, there is the question of allegiance to your country. Should people swear blind allegiance, no matter what the country does, or allegiance to the underlying values of that country? Another question is do you owe allegiance to your country over your family or should your family come first? And finally the question of identity. Is my first allegiance to myself? Do I owe it to myself to be who I am or do I need to hide that in some way?

I thought that played out really well in the show. I loved the tension between Sam and Kei because you could understand both of their reactions. They were such human reactions!

You only wish that they could understand that they are trapped by this same conundrum!

Lea Salonga and Telly Leung in Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Lea Salonga and Telly Leung in Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

These are such universal questions that you can imagine being played out at the kitchen tables of many persecuted ethnic groups throughout time. How do you react to being mistreated by the country that you have always considered your home? How do you react to government policies and public perceptions that make you feel like an enemy?

Every immigrant community suffers moments of existential crisis where the idea of American assimilation and American values need to be meshed with the traditional customs and values of the societies from which they or their parents or grandparents came. People who are first-generation think of themselves as Americans even if the rest of America may not view them that way. It creates a bit of dissonance for each person and when the stakes get raised you are sometimes forced to take a side.

That question was presented in 1942 when America said ‘if you are of Japanese descent, you are presumed to be the enemy,’ and so one faction – represented by Sam in Allegiance – said, ‘but we are not the enemy and we are going to prove we are not! We are going to be so American it’s going to allay all of your doubts.’ and another faction – represented by Kei in Allegiance – said, ‘well, fine, if you don’t think we’re American we are going to gather together even more as a community because that is where our strength lies.’

Is there a right answer? No. I think that both impulses are understandable but they lead to very, very different outcomes and the question of how you harmonize those outcomes within a familial setting… the divide can grow so wide and the stakes can go so high – life and death – that the choices they make at that moment about identity follow them for the rest of their lives.

These are the deep questions that the characters in Allegiance are grappling with and that Muslim Americans and even LGBT Americans are faced with today. Under assault from the new administration – how do we respond? Do we play along or do we resist?

The story of Allegiance definitely feels more relevant than ever now. What do you hope people get from this story in the context of the current political atmosphere in the US?

Allegiance is not just a historical piece now. We are seeing how quickly society can slip back into the very dangerous fear-mongering and race/religious baiting that led to the tragedy of the internment. That’s what’s terrifying, that we so easily not only forget but begin to hear echoes in the Trump surrogates and what they are saying about how the internment can be a precedent for a Muslim database. That is exactly the opposite of what it should be! It should be a cautionary tale, a lesson learned, but not a precedent! I feel like we have back-slid tremendously just in the past couple of years that there is even talk of this sort about this blight on the nation’s history.

Lea Salonga, George Takei and Telly Leung. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Lea Salonga, George Takei, and Telly Leung. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

George Takei talks about “the politics of fear” that led to public and political acceptance of internment camps for Japanese American citizens. In what ways do you see “the politics of fear” playing out again now and why is this so dangerous?

Well, George talks not only about the politics of fear but also the failure of political leadership and I think those two things go hand in hand. The politics of fear is drummed up for political purposes, they blow things out of proportion and they associate criminality or terror with certain races and that is what happened in WWII. In many ways, the media played into that without any sense of irony. They would use the word “Japs.” They would caricature Japanese people. Not only did the Japanese not have champions in the government or culture but the government and the culture actually turned upon them. So, the politics of fear does two things: One, it turns citizens against citizens and government against people but it also silences people who might otherwise step forward and say “not on my watch.” That is the thing that we hope shows like Allegiance will do, give courage to people and political leaders to stand up and say “this was wrong and we won’t let it happen again.”

Can you tell us the story of how you met George Takei? I feel like that is a Broadway legend in the making!

So, in 2008 Lorenzo Thione (one of Allegiance’s book writers) and I went to see Forbidden Broadway one night. Behind us in the theater, I heard someone talking in a very low baritone. I turn around and there is George Takei! It’s not everyday you run into George Takei! We exchanged pleasantries and left it at that. The very next day, we went to see In the Heights and there is George Takei again, in the same row with us! It was just an incredible coincidence. And it was perfect that it was In the Heights because there is a song in the first act called “Inútil” (“Useless”) that the father sings. I looked over at George during that song and he was crying like crazy.

I went up to him at intermission and we laughed about running into each other again and I asked why he had been so moved. He told me that the song had reminded him of his own father who had been unable to help their family escape the terror of the internment and had lived with that feeling of uselessness. It was at that moment that George told me his story of growing up in an internment camp and I was mesmerized. I started to think to myself what an amazing and powerful story it was and wondered how I, as an Asian American, had never spoken to an internment camp survivor. I said to him “this is crazy, but I think this would make a great show. Can I write to you in a few weeks with a storyboard and a few songs?” So that’s what I did and he came on board.

So why a musical? Why not a play or a book?

There are things that music can do to reach the depths of the human condition that mere words cannot. One of the great ironies of the Japanese American story is that a lot of people were ashamed to talk about what had happened. They didn’t bring it up with their children. They didn’t tell this story and I felt like, well we aren’t just going to tell it, we are going to sing it and perform it and release all of those emotions that are so difficult to speak but once you give them voice in a song the emotions can come through in the music. So that is why we said, it’s gotta be a musical.

The cast of Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The cast of Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

I know you worked to incorporate Japanese sounds into what is otherwise a Western pop score. What were the challenges involved in that? To what extent was that a priority?

Well, it was both challenging and a priority because I felt like we had an opportunity and obligation to lend some authenticity to the music. I studied a lot of ancient and contemporary Japanese sounds and instrumentation. I worked closely with our orchestrator and arranger, Lynne Shankel to give hints and flavors of Japan. Japanese music is so distinctive with its tonalities, very distinct even from the Chinese pentatonic scale. But then, part of me was like, how do you do this without sounding like you’re in a sushi restaurant, in a way that evokes without overtaking? We wanted to get it just right.

Is the movie a filming of the live play?

It is a filming of a live performance of the show, using multiple digital cameras and some outtakes but it was filmed live so we only had one chance to get it right. It is very raw and very live!

What are the plans for the film after the showing on December 13th?

We are hoping that the Allegiance film can become an educational tool. We hope that there can be an emotional connection to this particular family so that students can understand and feel in their gut what happened. That is very difficult to do in the context of a dry textbook or lecture and that is the difference that we can make as artists with this piece.


Allegiance will show at movie theaters around the country for one night only on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. For tickets, and to find a theater showing Allegiance near you, go online.


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