George Takei has plenty of practice exploring strange new worlds on TV and film, but delving into a painful time in his family's life onstage is something even he never imagined.
Takei and his family were among thousands of Japanese-Americans put in internment camps during World War II. The 75-year-old "Star Trek" actor's memories inspired composer/lyricist Jay Kuo to write "Allegiance — A New American Musical," which has high hopes of making it to Broadway.
Takei and Tony Award-winner Lea Salonga ("Miss Saigon") headline the production at The Old Globe in San Diego. Set to open Wednesday, the show follows a Japanese-American war veteran played by Takei who looks back on his family's time in an internment camp.
"I wanted to turn my childhood experience in the internment camps that we were in into a script. Jay said a musical is much more moving and you'll reach many more people with a musical," Takei said in an interview.
It was chance meeting with Kuo in 2008 at a Broadway theater that ignited the idea. Kuo and producer Lorenzo Thione met the actor and his husband and listened to Takei talk about his family's history.
Two weeks later, Kuo sent Takei a song he had written called "Allegiance," about a Japanese father trying to respond to a U.S.-issued "loyalty questionnaire." By 2009, they began doing readings of an entire show.
Kuo, who co-wrote the play with Marc Acio and Thione, understands some people may be skeptical about the idea of internment camps being musical fodder. But he said sometimes a song is the best form of expression, especially in a culture that prides steadfastness and stoicism.
"Asian-Americans don't really speak an emotional language. Music gives us that permission. In many ways, I think it's been a huge help for the story to have it told through music," said Kuo, who also sifted through numerous essays, oral histories and old congressional testimonies from internment survivors.
Takei was 5 years old when soldiers marched onto his front porch with bayonets in May 1942 and ordered his entire family to leave their Los Angeles home. Tears streamed down his mother's face as she held his baby sister and a duffel bag, "a memory that's seared into my brain."
"And then we were taken from there to the horse stables. My mother remembers it as the most degrading experience that she had in her life up to that point," Takei said. "There were more to follow but she says that was a really terrible feeling."
It would be nearly four years until the family was able to return to Los Angeles. After more than three months in the cramped Santa Anita Racetrack stables, they were put on a train to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas and later relocated to Camp Tule Lake in Northern California. Takei can vividly recall lining up three times a day to eat in a noisy mess hall and catching pollywogs in a jar for entertainment.
"The other irony that I remember now is when we started school, they taught us the Pledge of Allegiance," Takei said. "I could see barbed wire fences and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words 'liberty and justice for all.'"
Director Stafford Arima, whose father was interned in Canada during the war, said that while the story is about Japanese-Americans, it will resonate with anyone — regardless of ethnicity.
"It does deal with an Asian-American family but there are wonderful musicals like 'Fiddler On the Roof' that dealt specifically with a Jewish family. Not everyone is Jewish who loves 'Fiddler On the Roof,'" Arima said. "I think 'Fiddler On the Roof' is one of those great examples that transcends the ethnic background of the main characters because they're telling a human story and that is what 'Allegiance' is trying to do."
The question of whether a show centered on the Asian community and starring Asian actors can fill theater seats sparked controversy at the nearby La Jolla Playhouse this summer.
Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the composer and playwright of "Spring Awakening," debuted a musical based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Nightingale," in which the characters are Chinese. Asian-American activists were indignant that the cast featured mostly non-Asian actors — a similar complaint that erupted two decades ago with "Miss Saigon."
If "Allegiance" makes it to Broadway, it would be the first Asian-led cast of a musical there in nearly a decade. Salonga, who starred in a Broadway revival of "Flower Drum Song" in 2002, is hopeful the Asian-American ensemble can prove its commercial appeal in New York and elsewhere.
"For us the stakes are very high in that, a lot of people are saying — especially now with the controversy at the La Jolla Playhouse with regards to 'The Nightingale' — there are people saying Asians don't sell," Salonga said. "For me I'd like to think that that thinking is wrong."
Telly Leung, a "Glee" star who plays a younger version of Takei's character, made his debut in "Flower Drum Song" and was on Broadway most recently in "Godspell." The actor remembers being surprised that more people didn't flock to the "Flower Drum Song," which closed after five months. He wonders if Asian-Americans are perhaps not viewed as part of the fabric of America as much as they would like to be.
"When audiences come to see a show and they see a full cast of Asian people on stage, I wonder if it's difficult for them to connect to that," he said. "I wonder if there's a little bit of a disconnect — 'Oh, that person is an Asian and a foreigner.' I think that's always still something in our American subconscious that I'm hoping shows like 'Flower Drum Song' and 'Allegiance' can change."
Takei, who has raised $158,000 in fan donations through an online campaign, is hoping those who know him from "Star Trek" and his trademark saying, "Oh my," will be open to seeing him in a non-sci-fi role.
At 75, he's eager to make his Broadway debut. However, the self-described "shower singer" isn't planning on doing much complicated onstage dancing. "But I can do the Happy Dance," he said. "That's contemporary and it doesn't involve swinging girls around."
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