Bringing “Allegiance” to Broadway
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview with Mark Mugiishi, the subject of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/9779. The authors acknowledge use of information from “Isle Funds Carry WWII Internment Show” in the Honolulu Star- Advertiser by Wayne Harada (April 10, 2015), and from the “Allegiance” Playbill (2015) published by Playbill Corporation.
Mark Mugiishi has received well-deserved community accolades for his work in the medical field and his current leadership as President and CEO for the Hawaii Medical Service Association. He is also remembered as the ‘Iolani varsity boys’ basketball coach who won eleven league championships and seven state championships between 1989 and 2008. His previous achievements have been as a physician and surgeon at ‘Ekahi Health/Central Medical Clinic at Kuakini Hospital, associate chair of the Department of Surgery and director of surgical education at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine, co-founder of the Endoscopy Institute of Hawaii and Eye Surgery Center of Hawaii, and chairman of the ‘Iolani School Board of Governors.
For this article, we interviewed Mugiishi on another fascinating aspect of his multifaceted career: his role as a producer bringing the musical “Allegiance” to fruition as the only Broadway production directed by an Asian with a predominantly Asian cast. The play, inspired by the real-life experiences of actor George Takei (“Star Trek”), follows the plight of a Japanese American family uprooted from their home in California and incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, during World War II.
A Sansei with roots in Hiroshima and Okinawa, Mugiishi admits that his family knew little about the internment in Hawai‘i since his grandparents were plantation workers and not prominent community members, who were the ones imprisoned during the war. While attending ‘Iolani School, he recalls seeing nothing more than “one paragraph” in his history books about the incarceration of Japanese on the continental U.S. Busy with his medical career after graduation from Northwestern University, he wasn’t paying attention to the darker chapter of the experiences of the Japanese in America in the war years. So, how did he become a key producer in bringing this landmark musical to the Great White Way?
Making the Connection
Mugiishi’s journey started when an ‘Iolani classmate put him in touch with Jay Kuo, a lawyer with musical interests, and Lorenzo Thione, a technology entrepreneur. The classmate was Chris Lee, a film producer who was former head of Columbia/TriStar (Lee was the first Asian to head a major Hollywood studio and is now the founding director of the Academy for Creative Media System at University of Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu). Kuo and Thione had moved to New York and set up a production company called Sing Out, Louise! Productions. They were trying to create shows and music that could be commercially popular but weren’t necessarily moving anywhere fast.
By coincidence, Kuo and Thione met George Takei at a Broadway performance of “In the Heights.” They were struck by Takei’s tearful reaction to a song in the play that captured the father’s helpless feelings of not being able to protect his family from the onslaught of tragedy. Takei related that his own father experienced the same intense emotions of desperation when Takei’s family was incarcerated at Rohwer and Tule Lake internment camps in Arkansas and California during the war.
According to Mugiishi, Thione and Kuo were stunned to hear about the wholesale evacuation of Japanese on the West Coast. “They had no idea this had ever happened and the more they dug into the story, the more committed they became to have that story told.” In 2008-2009, they researched and produced a book (a musical script) and added the first draft of the music. Kuo wrote the music and lyrics and he along with Thione and Marc Acito created the book. That’s when the pair shared their work with Mugiishi. “They knew I loved musicals and they wanted to see my reaction as a Japanese American to what they were doing.” Mugiishi was immediately hooked.
When Thione and Kuo shared the script and music with Takei, the actor instantly fell in love with it and said, “I’m in. I’m ready to help you.” Takei was already well-known for “Star Trek,” and he became a social media star with millions of Facebook fans garnering much needed publicity for the production. The more Mugiishi learned about the show, the more he wanted to be part of the action. He got a crash course on the behind-the-scenes struggles and challenges in producing a musical worthy of a Broadway stage.
Creating the Hawai‘i Hui
Mugiishi immediately realized that funding was the major ticket. He explained, “You have to hire actors, you have to create content, you have to be able to show potential investors that this is what it looks like. You have to raise enough money to produce something that people can see to decide if they want to put their money in a full production.” This required initial seed money and Hawai‘i was an ideal place to start.
Capitalizing on his impressive contacts in the community, Mugiishi made his debut as a producer and leader of the Hawai‘i Hui. He said, “I was a logical partner, and we did our first fundraising activity here on O‘ahu in 2010. We raised our first dollar for the musical here.” He corralled over a hundred investors, each donating at least $25,000 (Harada, 2015). Ultimately, almost a third of the $13 million that was required for the show was raised in Hawai‘i.
Building the Momentum
Securing the seed money was a major step forward but snagging the right actors was also critical. Along with Takei, playing Ojï-san (grandfather) Sam Kimura, the creative team lured Broadway stars Lea Salonga and Telly Leung, who portrayed sister and brother in the Kimura clan. Another coup was getting Japanese Canadian Stafford Arima, an award-winning director, to take the helm.
With the key cast members and director on board, the journey to Broadway began in earnest. Mugiishi captures that intriguing quest beginning with table reads at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. He elaborated, “That’s where you get actors around a table. They act out and sing the parts and you see how everything works. Then you do stage readings, where everybody stands on a stage with microphones, and you test the play in front of small audiences. Next comes workshops where you actually act parts of it out.” The creative team also had history experts checking on the accuracy of the story. While they admitted taking certain liberties for dramatic effect, the team felt that the general narrative was sound.
The production was now ready for a regional performance, which would be the litmus test for the play. In 2012, the team selected San Diego and staged the musical at the Old Globe in Balboa Park. It was a huge success. The musical ran for two-and-a-half months and became the biggest box-office success in the history of the Old Globe. It was recognized as the outstanding new musical in 2012 by San Diego’s Theatre Critics Circle. The next stop was Broadway!
On to Broadway
The creative team approached the three families that controlled the major theaters in New York City. These organizations were Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn. Mugiishi admits this was a grueling, nail-biting period with so many productions jostling with one another to get a shot on Broadway. “We were working with all three families to convince them that our show was commercially viable and that it would be a success. We also kept re-working the script, trying to make it more attractive, trying to show them that we were paying attention to what could become commercially interesting to a Broadway audience.” Finally, in 2015, they got word that the Shubert Organization, who owned the largest number of theaters, was giving them the Longacre Theater.
The opening night reviews were uneven with glowing praise for the stellar cast but tepid comments on the musical content. However, there was no denying the strong emotional draw of the story itself. According to Mugiishi, audiences of all ethnicities and age groups connected with the heartbreaking narrative, many of them leaving the theater teary eyed. A survey conducted by BroadwayWorld, the biggest theater news website, reported that the cast — Takei, Salonga, Leung, Katie Rose Clark (playing the nurse) — won every cast award including one for the entire ensemble.
The show ran for six months to nearly sold-out houses at every performance. However, that wasn’t financially strong enough by Broadway standards since tickets could be sold at discount prices. An interesting coincidence was that over 120,000 folks saw the musical in New York matching the number of people who were interned on the continental U.S.
Reaching a Wider Audience
Seeing the audience’s emotional response to the story motivated the team to consider extending the experience beyond the Broadway run. They recognized that the message was crucial and timely given the increasing anti-Asian violence and rhetoric in the U.S. Mugiishi said, “We thought, what about a movie?” At one performance, they took a dozen cameras, placed them in all parts of the theater, and filmed the show. They had to decide how best to market the video. Ultimately, the movie ended up showing in theaters across the country via Fathom events. It also became available as a DVD for purchase, and for downloadable streaming on the internet. In addition, live performances of the show toured to major cities such as Los Angeles and Boston, ran in Japanese in Japan, and is anticipated to open in London in 2023.
Being part of this experience has been a high point in Mugiishi’s life. He admitted that the show was not a financial success but “that’s not what the investors did this for. They did it because of the art, because of the power of the story, because of the importance of the history.” Mugiishi believes that the compelling message is “when terrible things happen, you can still survive if you’re able to tie your family values to the things that will make you stronger. For viewers, empathy comes from understanding and we cannot do better unless we know better.” The creative team will continue to bring this voice to audiences because they strongly feel that current and future generations need to hear these stories of the resilience of the human spirit in the midst of racial intolerance and bigotry. Mugiishi said, “I would not have traded this experience for anything in the world. We are just getting started.”