On a September afternoon at New York City’s 42nd Street Studios, the cast and crew of Allegiance are gathering to rehearse their musical. The cast is a who’s who of notable Asian-American faces. On the side of the stage, laying on a prop bed, is “Star Trek”’s George Takei. Sitting among the chairs, waiting for her cue, is Tony-winning actress Lea Salonga, making her return to Broadway after eight years.
Actor Telly Leung of “Glee” and the 2011 Godspell revival is onstage center, getting ready to sing his “I want” song for the show. He’s playing the part of a young Japanese-American man whose family has been sent to an internment camp following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
As Leung sings, “I should be out there / Far past the fences and wire / But I look like the enemy / So there’s no way to climb any higher,” to a fast tempo, actors carrying suitcases walk to and fro in the background. Then Leung hits the chorus and stumbles on a lyric, bringing the song to a halt with a laugh, and the pianist responds with a few notes from “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along. It makes for a surprisingly easy transition. While one might not expect Sondheim to go so naturally with this material, he was one of composer/lyricist Jay Kuo’s main influences in writing the score, which blends Eastern and Western musical traditions to tell a story of a group of people who also straddle those two worlds.
“I have to remind myself that we’re not writing a Japanese story, we’re writing a Japanese-American story,” says Kuo on a break from rehearsal. “And the flavor of Asian America is different than Asia.”
Allegiance, with a book by Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, arrives on Broadway (it opens Nov. 8) amid a season that has been touted by the New York Times as the most diverse ever assembled, citing such shows as Hamilton, Shuffle Along, On Your Feet!, Spring Awakening, andThe Color Purple. Allegiance also comes at a time when Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning revival of The King and I is still playing to full houses, and Cameron Mackintosh’s West End revival of Miss Saigon, running through Feb. 27, 2016, has its eyes on Broadway for the 2016–17 season. For Asian actors, at least, stage employment may be at an all-time high.
For Salonga, who won a Tony for Miss Saigon in 1991 and also starred in Flower Drum Song in 2002, Allegiance is a legacy piece. She’s been involved in its development since 2009, and the character of Kei was written with her voice in mind. “[It’s] this one I’m proudest of,” says Salonga. “Whether it brings anything personally to me as an actor, it doesn’t matter. This piece is just way too important. It’s the piece over everything else.”
It’s not just the topical subject matter—immigration, xenophobia, wartime paranoia—that makes Allegiance an especially significant entry to the Broadway season. It also happens to be the first musical created by Asian Americans, directed by an Asian American (Stafford Arima), with a predominantly Asian cast, to grace the Broadway stage.
For the creators of Allegiance, it’s a moment that has been a long time coming for the Great White Way, which has come under scrutiny in recent years for living up all too well to its nickname. With this change in viewpoint—what Kuo describes as “writing from the inside out and not the outside in”—comes a sense of ownership of the material. The story is told from the point of view of Japanese Americans, and a number of the cast are Japanese American, including Takei, who were either interned themselves or had family members who were.
“This is the one show that does have an Asian perspective behind it, besides the Asian actors onstage,” Salonga says. “I don’t think it’s something that Broadway has seen before, but it’s certainly something that Broadway actually needs.”
To understand why Allegiance is historic, one need only look at the musicals of the past half century or more. Throughout the American musical theatre canon, a not-inconsiderable number of stage works have taken on Asian or Asian-American subjects, starting with the granddaddies of the form’s so-called Golden Age, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who dedicated not one but three musicals to the East and/or its denizens: the Pacific Islands in South Pacific (1949), Siam/Thailand in The King and I (1951), and San Francisco’s Chinatown in Flower Drum Song (1958).
In 1976, Hammerstein’s pupil Sondheim, with librettist John Weidman, tackled imperial Japan with Pacific Overtures, and in 1991 Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil had a massive hit with their Vietnam War–set Madama Butterfly update, Miss Saigon. Then, in 2002, David Henry Hwang rewrote Hammerstein’s book of Flower Drum Song. Most recently, in 2013, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim had an Off-Broadway hit at the Public Theater with a musical based on their album exploring the inner life of Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love.
Besides their subjects, what all of these pieces had in common (except for Hwang’s Flower Drum revisal) was that they were written entirely by white composers and playwrights, whose perceptions of Asia (and Asian America) drew on testimonials and secondhand sources rather than personal experience. With no Asian-American viewpoint informing the work, the ensuing dialogue between East and West was entirely one-sided, and the authenticity of the results has varied in relation to these white authors’ intentions and approach.
For Miss Saigon lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., the attraction of an Eastern setting was partly a certain degree of exoticism, but also partly a narrative or thematic impulse—it’s a convenient way to explore cultural divides.
“As soon as you deal with a culture clash, you deal with one of the most central issues of humankind, which is: How do you deal with people that are not like you?” says Maltby. “America is based on the most extraordinary principle, which is we’re the same—and we have been prejudiced against everybody.”
Likewise, Rodgers and Hammerstein seem to have been attracted to Asian themes for the issues that could be explored against foreign backdrops and characters, whether with miscegenation and bigotry in South Pacific, the clashing of contrasting worldviews in King and I, or the trials of assimilation in Flower Drum Song.
In his autobiography Musical Stages, Rodgers wrote, “Even though our view of Siam couldn’t be completely authentic, Oscar and I were determined to depict the Orientals in the story as characters, not caricatures, which has all too often been the case in the musical theatre. Our aim was to portray the king and his court with humanity and believability, while avoiding the disease Oscar used to call ‘research poison.’”
In making a case for these stated progressive intentions, Exhibit A is South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which Lt. Cable sings when he realizes he’s in love with the Polynesian Liat but can’t marry her. Though Rodgers claimed it was not a “message song,” it is telling that the musical was written in post–World War II America, after an ostensibly triumphant war, in which xenophobia had led to the imprisonment of nearly the country’s entire Japanese-American population. Though many recommended that R&H remove the song from the show, particularly considering that interracial marriage was not even legal nationwide, R&H insisted on its inclusion. Elsewhere, though, they did soften some of the edges of the show’s racial themes.
“They wanted to be a part of the politics, but they wanted as many people going to their musical as possible,” says director Bartlett Sher, who directed the most recent Tony-winning revivals of South Pacific and The King and I. This became clear to Sher when he was sifting through earlier drafts of South Pacific, noticing that the racial language was more pronounced. In earlier drafts, for instance, when the white nurse Nellie Forbush realizes that her lover had fathered two half-Polynesian children, she described his former wife as “colored”—a line restored for Sher’s 2008 Lincoln Center Theater production.
“[What was cut] was almost all entirely about race,” Sher says, including Cable’s line, which he paraphrased as: “I can’t bring [Liat] home, because the minute she meets my relatives in Philadelphia, they will all throw me out.” These were restored in his version.
Similar restorations were made for King and I. Earlier drafts included talk about French imperialism in Cambodia, “about capitalism, about colonialism, and about [the king’s] fear of whether Tuptim is responding to him properly. Really interesting stuff, which they also backed off of a little bit, either because Yul Brynner didn’t want to say it, or nobody knew what Cambodia was,” says Sher.
Maltby says that Miss Saigon was created with similarly honorable intentions, with the team speaking to Vietnamese immigrants for research and consulting books and films. The show, about a Vietnamese prostitute who falls in love with an American G.I. and has a child by him, aimed to show the desperation and ugliness of war.
“I don’t think anywhere in that that we were exploiting any element of Vietnam or Bangkok for show-business reasons,” says Maltby. “The biggest show-business number is ‘The American Dream,’ which is about America. [Saigon is] about America just simply not understanding what we do.”
Yet despite their best intentions, and the acclaim that has greeted their work in many quarters, creators of many of these shows contributed to the Orientalist tradition they hoped to subvert via the music. For his King and I score, for example, Rodgers wrote that he didn’t draw on any Thai musical models but instead “followed my usual custom of writing the best music I could for the characters and situations without slavishly trying to imitate the music of the locale in which the story was set…Western audiences are not attuned to the sounds of tinkling bells, high nasal strings, and percussive gongs, and would not find this kind of music attractive.”
But relying on a gut sense of foreignness in music, as Harvard University musicologist Carol Oja points out, means that these shows often have a sound that’s stereotypically “Eastern.” Songs like “Bali Ha’i” were described by Rodgers as having an “Oriental, languorous quality,” while much of the score for Flower Drum Song (with songs like “Chop Suey” and “Fan Tan Fannie”) amounted to the musical theatre version of takeout Chinese food.
“They extend the exoticism tropes in opera, from Aida, Madama Butterfly, lots of 19th-century music and early-20th-century music,” says Oja. “That’s the sound world they’re living in, despite all of their very important and honorable political intentions.”
Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, by contrast, has a more astringent sound world, as well as a pointedly non-Western point of view. In showing Japan’s reluctant opening to the West, it has the Japanese speaking perfect English and the Western characters speaking pidgin—the direct inverse of King and I. And though Sondheim has said he found much of his harmonic inspiration in the music of the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, his score includes Japanese musical conventions and instrumentation, and some of his lyrics mimic haiku poetry. The result is a chimerical creation that, while not Japanese, doesn’t feel Orientalist, either.
“There’s a very sharp edge to Pacific Overtures,” says Oja. “[Sondheim] found a space of integrity where he could comment on another culture but do so in relation to how the West has basically not treated that culture very well. There are aspects of Japanese tradition woven in there. He finds a hybrid and it’s certainly one that’s aiming for respect.”
One of the performers in the original Pacific Overtures, Mako, cofounded East West Players, an Asian-American theatre company in Los Angeles. After the show closed on Broadway, the producers gave Boris Aronson’s set to EWP, which used it in their 1978 production. Pacific Overtures was remounted in 1998, under the direction of artistic director Tim Dang, when the troupe opened its new Downtown space in Little Tokyo.
“I don’t think there was anything stereotypical about it,” says Dang of Pacific Overtures, noting that Harold Prince’s original staging presented it in the style of a Kabuki play. That might be why, though EWP regularly produces musicals with Asian casts—including many by Sondheim—Pacific Overtures is the only Asian-themed musical by white authors that they’ve staged.
Kuo also incorporates haiku into his lyrics for Allegiance, and says he aims to inject a “Japanese flavor” into the score (he is Chinese American). One way he does this is by including actual Japanese: One song, sung by Salonga’s character, is called “Gaman,” a word that Takei taught him, which means to “endure with fortitude.” He admits that trying to put Japanese words into a Broadway score can be tricky, as the tonal quality of the language doesn’t quite allow for many vocal acrobatics. But he feels that the product is an authentically cross-cultural sound.
“The Asian tonality of the show is really specific to my own persona,” he says. “Those are the songs I grew up with, the feelings that I grew up with—the sentimentality that I know. You’ll hear a traditional pop ballad, for example, but you’ll feel, without being able to pinpoint exactly where, a texture to this that is different than anything you’ve heard before or would have heard inPacific Overtures.”
Miss Saigon also contains foreign language, most notoriously in two songs, “Bui Doi” and “The Wedding Ceremony (Dju vui vai).” As has been pointed out by many native speakers who’ve seen the show, “Dju vui vai” is closer to gibberish than Vietnamese. Maltby chuckles, exclaiming, “Somebody tell me what the real language is and I’ll put it up! I can’t vouch for it. I can certainly tell you that we kept asking people, and several different translators gave us slightly different versions. ‘Dju vui vai’ was a bunch of different things.”
That lyrical inaccuracy is a microcosm of the controversies that have plagued Miss Saigon since its inception. Though there are occasionally protests of productions of King and I, they typically focus on the casting of a white actor as the king. But Miss Saigon has faced criticism since its original London and Broadway productions, first for casting Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer, then for the stereotypical content—a line of attack that continues to this day.
Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn., was among those raising his voice in protest when Miss Saigon was produced there, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, in 2013. It was the third time the musical had come to the Twin Cities, each time in the face of protest; after the most recent production, an advocacy group, Don’t Buy Miss Saigon, was created to address racial representation in the Twin Cities. Reyes says the objection is to a story in which “all the Asian women are prostitutes, and the one that’s not a prostitute is a white woman—and she’s the one who gets the child in the end.” Perpetuating those stereotypes, he says, is “hurting the community.”
Yet these tropes are hardly unique to Miss Saigon, which borrowed its plot from Puccini. Liat in South Pacific is a submissive and silent female, while the notion of an Englishwoman coming to civilize a barbaric nation in King and I is straight-up colonialism. That’s probably the reason the 1956 film remains banned in Thailand (historical inaccuracy is probably another).
But this debate isn’t just between white authors and Asian-American activists. It also rages within the Asian-American community. For all those who criticize these works for their inauthenticity and Orientalism, there are many who welcome the opportunities these musicals have created for performers of Asian descent to create and interpret major roles in one of America’s leading art forms.
Filipino-American actor Jose Llana, for one, credits Miss Saigon for inspiring him to pursue theatre, and he knows this Asian-American musical canon well: He made his Broadway debut as Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of King and I, went on to play the lead in Flower Drum Song, Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s Here Lies Love, and recently took over for Ken Watanabe as the lead in Sher’s King and I.
“Miss Saigon changed my life—the fact that it exists,” says Llana. “Every Filipino wanted to be in Miss Saigon because Lea Salonga won the Tony.”
Reyes, who is also Filipino, acknowledges that for all his criticism, it was Saigon that inspired him to pursue the theatre. And Llana in turn admits that the show’s success can be problematic.
“Do I love that two of our most popular Asian characters in musical theatre are a Vietnamese pimp and a Vietnamese whore?” he says. “No! I remember auditioning for the London production of Miss Saigon, and there were some parts of me that had real issues. The Engineer is a self-hating Asian, and I hate it. I hated auditioning for that part. But those are the parts that we have.”
For Sher, contemporary productions of these works need to acknowledge the inherently problematic elements within them, and to resist the urge to exoticize or gloss over the challenges. In addition to restoring more frank content to his stagings, Sher also restaged and recontextualized iconic musical sequences. In South Pacific’s “Happy Talk,” for instance, a seemingly blissful song of young love reads more as an act of desperation—of a mother trying to sell her daughter to an American G.I. in the hopes that he will take her to America.
“I think one of the problems of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the 60 years of performance history that followed, which watered down and eliminated, were afraid of, and exoticized the East in a way that’s beyond anyone’s reasoning,” says Sher. In the case of King and I, his goal was to “strip it of its really ornate quality. So I have a very spare set, and I have a very stripped-down world. I was always very careful of it seeming like the exotic East.” Instead he envisioned “a world in which you’re dealing with change and struggle, who the outsiders are and who the insiders are, and to let that be the real question.”
Indeed, for all the misgivings that many artists have about these works, the consensus is not that they shouldn’t be mounted anymore. What’s important now is that there’s also new work that more authentically represents the Asian and Asian-American experience, created by Asian and Asian-American teams. Kuo and Allegiance are a dramatic and long overdue step in that direction.
Still, white theatremakers aren’t going to stop writing these shows. So what’s the best way to make them more authentic and respectful? Salonga has some advice: “If, say, an all-white creative team can actually go to the country they’re writing about, singing about, choreographing about—actually get into those experiences, and then write about it—then it’s different. Then you make it come from a deeper place.”
In the case of Maltby, whose new musical with composer David Shire, Waterfall, is set in Thailand, one solution is to have a Thai director, Tak Viravan. The show ran at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in October, and its commercial producers have their sights on Broadway. “[Tak] gave me endless lectures on Thai society and mores and history, as well,” says Maltby. “A lot of things that he said are in the show one way or another.”
With their Asian leads and creative bona fides, Waterfall and Allegiance have the potential to change the game. Will they be part of a new turning point like the time Salonga’s Tony-winning Kim gave countless Asian-American performers a “Ring of Keys” moment?
Before we get too excited, consider that David Henry Hwang won the Best Play Tony for M. Butterfly in 1988, with composer Paul Chihara’s short-lived Broadway musical Shogun playing soon after in 1990; this makes Kuo only the third Asian-American creator to ever be on Broadway * (unless you count Rajiv Joseph or Ayad Akhtar, who have South Asian heritage). Kuo says that his inbox is now filled with queries from young Asian-American composers, many of whom are not necessarily writing ethnic-specific stories.
“We have a song called ‘Ishi Kara Ishi,’ which means ‘stone by stone.’ It’s the idea that a mountain can be moved stone by stone, if you have enough patience. And a gentle river can carve a whole canyon. I do see it as progress but very slow progress. It’s been a long time.”
Where will the river go next? To quote Sondheim: It’s the ripple, not the sea, that is happening.
*An earlier version of the article claimed that Jay Kuo is the second Asian-American creator to be on Broadway. He is actually the third.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!