The Musical’s Producer Shares the Fascinating Back Story
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: Dr. Mark Mugiishi’s entire professional life has been dedicated to healing through medicine. A general surgeon whose specialty is cancer procedures, Mugiishi also serves as associate chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Hawai‘i’s John A. Burns School of Medicine as well as chief medical officer for HMSA — Hawaii Medical Services Association. In 2009, however, Mugiishi took a giant leap of faith into a field in which he had no prior experience or real knowledge. Believing strongly in the story it sought to tell and trusting his heart, Mugiishi signed on as the producer of “Allegiance,” a musical based on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The musical was written by Jay Kuo, Lorenzo Thione and Marc Acito and starred George Takei, Lea Salonga and Telly Leung. “Allegiance” opened in New York City in 2016. It was the first Broadway production to be written, directed and composed by Asian Americans.
Hawai‘i Herald contributing writer Alan Suemori met with Mugiishi recently to learn about the musical’s journey to Broadway.
Alan Suemori: How did this project begin?
Mark Mugiishi: The whole project really began with a chance meeting in 2006 when Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione sat next to George Takei, the television and film actor, at an off-Broadway play. The very next night, they ran into Takei and his husband, Brad Altman, at “Into the Heights,” which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also created [the musical] “Hamilton.” Just before intermission, a father in the show sings a song called “Inutil,” which means “worthless” in Puerto Rican, because of his frustration in being unable to protect his family. During that song, they saw Takei become quite emotional, and at intermission, they introduced themselves and asked why he had broken down. Takei shared that it reminded him of his own family, who was interned during the war, and his father who always felt helpless that he wasn’t able to shield his children from that terrible experience.
AS: Did Kuo or Thione know anything about the internment?
MM: Kuo and Thione are very educated guys. Kuo is an attorney who gave up his practice to become a Broadway composer, and Thione is a technology wizard who actually wrote the language that became Bing, the Internet search engine. But they had never heard of the internment. When they actually started researching what it was all about, they wanted to create something that would illuminate such a dark time in our history.
AS: How did you get involved?
MM: I was introduced to Jay by Chris Lee, the Hawai‘i-born film executive who was the head of TriStar Pictures. (Lee also founded and directs the UH’s Academy for Creative Media.) Jay mentioned that he was writing a show called “Allegiance” that was inspired by George Takei’s family story during the war and he asked me if I wanted to hear a few songs. When I heard the first notes, I knew my life was not going to be the same. So I signed on as the producer. Jay, Marc and Lorenzo were really at the beginning of the project and had very little, but I didn’t view this as a problem. I saw “Allegiance” as an adventure, and life is best when spiced with variety and journeys that make the heart sing a little bit.
AS: What was the story about?
MM: The musical is set in the throes of World War II, and it follows the Kimuras, a California farming family whose world is torn apart by the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They are interned in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, in 1942, and each member of the family responds differently to the reality that they are American citizens imprisoned in their own country based only on the fact that they looked like the enemy.
Sam is the young son who is the bright hope of the family. He decides the best way to overcome the taint of suspicion is to volunteer to fight in the 442nd even though he may have to sacrifice his life. Kei is his older sister who defers her own dreams to raise her brother after their mother’s death. She believes that the internment is unconstitutional and the only way to battle something so wrong is to stand up and say we will not succumb to prejudice. Kei falls in love with Frankie Suzuki, the chief resister in the camp and, eventually, Sam and Frankie become bitter enemies even though they are trying to achieve the same thing in two different ways.
There is a song in the show where they talk about how American values are at stake and they sing it simultaneously, even though they are going in two opposite directions: One is resisting the draft and leading protests; the other is joining the 442nd and is willing to die to prove his loyalty. They both believe they are fighting for their country. And they are both right. America stands for many things, but first and foremost, it means the promise of living in a society that guarantees inalienable rights: It’s the freedom to think independently and freely and act on those thoughts. It means having the security of knowing your own individual opinions, thoughts and freedoms are protected, and I think this show really does get to the core of all of that and the question of what it really means to be an American.
AS: What were you trying to achieve with this musical?
MM: What we tried to do is tell the human story of what happened to families after Executive Order 9066. Of course, there is a political statement, because the show talks about what occurs when mass hysteria can grip a country and how individual families can suffer even though they are innocent of any crime. But independent of that, we wanted to tell a story about a family that anyone can identify with in order to humanize the impact of what happened.
AS: Being that this is a Broadway musical, how historically accurate is the production?
MM: The authors were extremely diligent about making sure that they got this story right, so they researched every little piece about what happened down to the clothes that people wore, to the things they did in the camps. That being said, “Allegiance” is a Broadway show and some artistic license was taken. You have only two hours to tell a very complicated story, so you have to create fictional characters and dramatic scenes to move the story along effectively and you have to compress events. For example, we combined some incidents that happened in other camps and transported them to Heart Mountain.
AS: What was the process of bringing the project from conception to completion?
MM: We started the project in 2009, and it’s rough doing a Broadway show. First of all, you need a lot of money. The total capitalization for everything was close to $15 million to put the whole thing together. You start off doing little readings where people will stand up in front of a microphone and just read and sing the show. With that, you get a sense of what you have to change and what you want to keep. From there you move to a workshop where, with nominal props, you actually perform the show on a stage. At that point, you go to a regional theatre, which is located somewhere in a different part of the country so you can see how it does in front of a real audience. Just that phase alone takes $2 [million]-to-$3 million dollars.
AS: Considering the cost of the production, why make a Broadway musical?
MM: There have been many movies made about the internment, but never a musical, and certainly never anything on Broadway. It was the best chance to bring light to something that has been largely ignored on the biggest stage in the world.
AS: So where did you go for your regional?
MM: We did our regional in San Diego at the Old Globe and “Allegiance” became the highest grossing show in the history of that historic theater. From there, we took the musical and refined it even more until we felt we were ready for New York, so that was a lot of work.
In 2009, we began this journey, and in 2015, we were on Broadway, so it took six years to go through all of those iterations and get to our goal. Something independent of the fact that it is expensive and it takes a lot of work is the reality that there are about forty theaters on Broadway and they are all owned by three families: the Shuberts, the Nederlanders and a smaller outfit called Jujamcyn. Those three families own all of the Broadway theaters and at the end of the day you can have a show, but you can’t have a Broadway show unless you are in one of those venues. So it’s quite a process of courting these people and convincing them that you will be successful. We were very fortunate that after six years of moving forward, the Shuberts gave us a chance to be in their Longacre Theatre.
AS: What was your greatest disappointment as a producer?
MM: We did think after our tremendous success in San Diego that we would move to Broadway really quickly, but it took a long time. Ultimately, we were able to get a theater, but because of the delay, the show didn’t open until the same time as “Hamilton,” which was really unfortunate for a very simple reason. Most Broadway shows are watched by tourists, who make up 65 percent of the audience, and when most people visit New York, they decide they are going to see two or three shows, which they preselect. The problem is that “Hamilton” was so popular that you could only get tickets on the secondary market — and they cost $1,000 apiece. Consequently, most people would see only “Hamilton” because they could only afford to go to one show, so all the productions that opened in the same year as “Hamilton” really struggled. Consequently, we were able to run for six months, but we could never completely grab mass adoption by the Broadway-going audience where we could run longer than that. The people who went loved it, but it was a struggle to get people to buy advance tickets, which, in the Broadway business model, is the key to success. Getting people to buy full-price advance tickets is how you succeed on Broadway, and we couldn’t do that.
AS: So what happened after the show closed?
MM: So, prior to closing on Broadway, the producers got together and said, ‘Let’s not even think about the money. Let’s think about what we really want to do, which is to get the story out to as many people as possible.’ We all came to the conclusion that the way to do that was to create a motion picture. So a month before closing, we went into the theater with a dozen or so 4K high-resolution cameras, shot it from all angles, then edited it into a film that we could share with a much larger audience. Once we did that, we did our first showing on December 13, 2016, and used an organization called Fathom Events, which is a boutique film distributor that showcases one movie for one day across the country in a limited number of theaters. If it does well, they’ll repeat the showing and do it another day.
AS: So making the movie was the right decision?
MM: There are three interesting things here: First of all, 120,000 was the number of people who were interned during the war, the second thing was that 120,000 was the number of people who saw “Allegiance” on Broadway during the entire run of the show and, finally, 120,000 was the number of people who saw the film on one day in the theaters. So when you think about those numbers, we made the right choice to move the musical into the movies because we are going to have the opportunity to really get this story out to a lot more people.
AS: Why is the “Allegiance” story still relevant?
MM: All of us know that when you look at the things that are happening in America today, it’s not that different from what occurred in 1942. It’s almost the same kind of emotional climate where panic and fear are pushing against rational thought. We know that has happened before in our country and we have to be wary of that.
The second thing to appreciate is that there are a lot of positive qualities about Japanese culture that helped these people persevere and eventually prevail. There is a song in the show called “Gaman,” which is a concept that almost all young Japanese are taught by their parents and grandparents: When things are rough, hold your head high, and battle adversity with dignity and courage. I think these are timeless lessons that will never grow out of date for any generation.
An encore screening of “Allegiance” will be held Feb. 19 at the Dole Cannery Theaters in Iwilei — 75 years to the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Tickets for the screening sold out quickly, however. “I am hopeful there will be other screenings in the future if demand continues to be high,” said Mugiishi.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.