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. […]
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.
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Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.