From Japanese internment to Judy Garland: Talk-back with playwright Marc Acito about Allegiance on Broadway and a new play for 2016
A new musical, Allegiance, opened last month The Longacre Theatre on Broadway, starring Star Trek actor and social media star George Takei and Lea Salonga. Based on Takei’s own childhood, which was spent in part in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War Two, the show made it to New York after a successful run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2012. The music and lyrics are by Jay Kuo. The book is by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.
Writer and teacher Marc Acito was brought into the creative process by the producers and originators of the script to overhaul the book. Acito, who teaches writing at NYU, and has written novels and a musical adaptation of the film A Room With A View, as well as a new musical based on the childhood of Judy Garland, spent time with EncoreMichigan.com in New York talking about the creative process for the show, as well as some of the production and business aspects of mounting a musical with an arguably dark theme on Broadway.
EM: What is the genesis of how this play came to be written and produced in San Diego in the first place?
MA: The story goes that George and his husband, Brad, encountered Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione two consecutive nights at the theatrer. At intermission of In The Heights, Kuo and Thione talked to George as to why he had been so moved by the father’s song, “Useless”, in which he laments his inability to help his family. George recounted his personal experience as a child in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and his own father’s experience. Kuo and Thione felt that Takei’s family’s experience would work well for a show.
EM: I know you as a writer of novels and as a journalist. When did play and musical writing happen?
MA: Writing for the theater is a mid-life crisis career change for me. I have a life-long obsession with story structure. It started at Carnegie Mellon with Charlie Willard, my mentor. In the musical theater, he has these brilliant techniques for text analysis. I took that through being a novelist, and teacher, and have taught hundreds of writers on this.
Understandng a narrative and how it should work is the key to keeping my sanity and a defense against anxiety. I made that switch to the theater because I felt it was a missing piece for me. I moved to New York about five years ago from the west coast and had a five year plan to write for Broadway. I just made it.
EM: How did you come to be involved in Allegiance?
EM: A Room With A View? That is a great story, and was a great movie. I can very much see that being a musical. What happened?
MA: It was…how do I want to describe it?…It failed to launch, and it should have failed. I kept thinking, this should be working, and it’s not. It’ a great story with a great narrative flow. And that failure sent me back to what a makes a musical tick. It sent me back to principals of analysis with a professor of mine….where did I go wrong.? So, even though, it didn’t work, the experience was life and work changing for me.
EM: What did you learn from View?
MA: What works for one person is not going to work for other people. I looked at the whole process and how I was approaching it with a blank piece of paper. There is no set process that I know of to study why some shows are successes and others are not. But I tried to sort some things out. Like a social scientist researcher, I figured the one thing you can quantify is how long it ran. There is a lot that goes into it. But if a show runs a log time, it must mean people like it. So, what do the shows, some of which I don’t like at all, have in common that makes people like them and create long runs. I began studying some shows in that context.
EM: And it was about this time that you got asked to work on the book for Allegiance.
MA: Yes. While I was doing post-mortem on A Room with A View, the producing creative team was looking for a playwright to join the project. The project originated with George, and the emotional core power of that was so strong that the story was progressing faster than the show could be written and polished. They were four months away from world premier with stars and a director at the Old Globe in San Diego and still did not have an established writer to work on the book. There was a script. It was visceral. People were weeping. But no established writer to craft it into a compelling narrative to deliver the raw emotional power. I have used this show as a kind of clinical trial for how I want to work and what I have been trying to learn about musicals. Rather than a big broad musical, this is more of a musical play that seeks to connect with the audience.
EM: What did you do?
MA: I cut five characters. I wrote new characters for George and Lea. It was really a brand new character for George. The basic premise of this old soldier going down a worm-hole of memory to confront his past was already in place. The idea that George would play his own grandfather was mine.
The idea that Lea Salonga could play his older sister who was his surrogate mother was mine as well. The new characters did not have to cleave to George’s biography.
The original idea for the show was something akin to East of Eden, two competing brothers competing for affection of a withholding father, which is one of the reasons this show is set in Salinas CA.
That’s a fantastic idea for a narrative. The problem is that our stars are George Takei and Leah Salonga, so which brother is George and which is Leah? Neither. Our stars were sub-orbital to our story when I joined the creative team. The things about stars is that they are called stars for a reason. They are called stars because everyone else orbits around them. We had to re-orient the story so we could get heat where it belongs.
It was always conceived as a family piece, but the family changed once we restructured. The restricting captured the emotional core—we had to find a new engine for that emotional energy.
EM: I am fascinated by looking at what shows work and what shows do not. Like, how can a writer who created The Music Man just not succeed at all in three other tries at musical theatre. How does Andrew Lloyd Weber create a show that doesn’t work? Talk more about your approach.
MA: As a human being I’m a silver lining sort of person. I am always looking for the uplift in a tragedy. I often see it missing in the culture. We have a lot of stories in musical theater where the stories of uplift are empty calories, and the stories of substance are like medicine. But to tell a story that is substantive and serious, challenging and difficult– and yet to see the optimism and uplift–that is the legacy of Oscar Hammerstein, and I don’t see much of that today. I wanted to marry those things up to deliver George’s story.
EM: And how was it received in San Diego?
MA: We broke the 75-year record tickets sold at the Old Globe. The show continued to progress from there. This chance we got to bring it to Broadway is not a slam dunk, though. Will the audience accept a story set in an episoide of the country’s dark past, but with an uplifting message. We are focusing on these people and their spirit of triumph, not the villainy of the situation.
EM: When I first became aware of the project, I wondered if it wouldn’t work better as an opera, and I know you have performed in opera.
MA: No. It was never going to be an opera for the simple reason that George was always going to be in it. And he is no opera singer. But it is an interesting idea with another set of actors.
EM: How do you see the marketing of the show connecting with audiences? MA: We have all chatted about whether the the story will be too dark on the surface for a lot of people. Will the casual theatre goer go for this story? What we have discovered is that we have to overcome initial impression that it is a downer. The difference between Parade or The Scottsboro Boys…both of which I am a big fan of…have never found big audiences. Those are stories that are tragedies. They do not affirm a positive view of the world. The same can be said of Sideshow. At the end of Sideshow, they go back to the freak show. So, it’s depressing. I think that is why that play has not found a bigger audience.
EM: What shows influence you thinking about this show.
MA: Funny you should ask that. I always had a bit of Fiddler on the Roof in mind. That show, like this one, is about family…enduring with dignity. It is set in time of the oppression of Jews by Imperial Russia, but the Cossacks really don’t have a big presence in that show. It is really about Tevye’s family and his resolve to endure with dignity. I have done a project with Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who has become a friend, and he told me he always wanted to work on a show that dealt with the internment of Japanese-Americans.
EM: Tell us about your next project, Chasing Rainbows.
MA: In 1935, a teenage girl at the height of the depression went to work to support her family, she was denigrated for her weight and was bullied by her boss. It’s the story of Judy Garland. It’s a musical that tells the story of her adolescence up to the point of doing The Wizard of Oz. It examines a dark story, but it is really a revisiting of where the human will and triumph is. I love the rainbow metaphor, which, of course, works wonderfully with her and the Oz story. Rainbows don’t last forever, but neither does the rain. That’s kind of my take on life. I can’t be completely negative about anything. I get frustrated because I feel like optimism has been co-opted by light-weights and hacks. And pessimism has been co-opted by intellectuals. If you look at life, there is always a balance of the two. That’s where the story is.
EM: That is a story and topic that has box-office written all over it both in the intial run, as a touring show and downstream.
MA: Sometimes, creativity and marketing come together perfectly. Anything connected to Judy Garland is going to work. It had an easy 30-second pitch–Judy Garland’s hard road to Oz–and the advertising practically writes itself. It debuted for work-shopping in Flat Rock, North Carolina and we inked a deal for the Goodspeed Opera House Theatre in Connecticut for 2016.
EM: Back to Allegiance and marketing. How does George Takei’s enormous social media following factor into the produce-ability of the show on Broadway?
MA: There is very little data that I have seen that tells us exactly how much social media stardom transfers to Broadway. We don’t know how much that translates to $300 for two tickets.
EM: Tell us a bit about George Takei. He strikes me as a very special individual.
MA: George’s mission in life is to form a more perfect union. That may sound corny, but it’s true. As someone who was raised in incarceration by his own government, he is focused on trying to reach as wide an audience as possible. If we only reach a small audience, we won’t have succeeded. He does not want people to forget about this chapter. And we are obviously in an age when this is not a topic or theme that is purely nostalgic. There is a great sense of people being “other” right now as we deal with terrorism and domestic violence of all kinds. George gets involved, and he is vocal and incredibly articulate and caring. He has, for example, been in direct contact with the young boy in Texas who was taken out of school for having built a suspicious looking clock.
George talks a lot about enduring with dignity. It was a guiding principle of the detainees, and he talks about it a lot as a principle of his life.