Theater

Respecting ‘Allegiance’: Unsuccessful Shows Close; Other Kinds of Failure Enjoy Long Runs

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The new Broadway musical Allegiance has posted its closing notice and will be vacating the Longacre Theatre on February 14. This makes me sad — not because I had a particularly good time at Allegiance (I didn’t) but because the show aimed to do something meaningful. It tried to grapple with a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and to do so in an honest and heartfelt, while still entertaining, way. Ultimately it didn’t succeed, but failure is a relative concept.

Americans tend to make a big to-do about success, especially when quantifiable: the number of awards, box office dollars, Web hits, performances given, copies sold, likes clicked, and whatever else you can tot up statistically. No doubt this fascination with metrics has its good side. It encourages a healthy competitive sense in artists, and it keeps the public interested. But it also has a downside: It puts success ahead of other values that might be healthier for the human spirit, and it often does so in a frenzied, obsessive way that’s probably unhealthy in itself.

The consuming urge to succeed tempts artists into manipulative tricks. Experienced showbiz folk know only too well how such tricks are performed and how hollow the applause that follows can sound. People who work regularly in the theater value honesty and sincerity because the manipulations — the up-a-third big finish to a song, the shouting climax to a speech that needs no shouting — become, too often, the theater’s daily bread, and it’s not nourishing. When artists try a show that sets its mind on meaning instead of flimflammery, and doesn’t succeed, their colleagues’ tears are not the crocodile kind; those to be shed over Allegiance when it goes will be very real indeed.

Still, Allegiance had to go. Although theater people spend much of their lives manufacturing illusions for the folks out front — or maybe because that’s what they do — they’re notably hardheaded about facing one key fact: Either a show sells tickets or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, in a nonprofit venue it will play out its limited run and not extend. In the high-budget commercial context of Broadway, low ticket sales means goodbye.

Allegiance aspired to be a Broadway-scale musical, the costliest of all theater forms. It faced stiff competition (Hamilton, for starters) while tackling a subject many ordinary musical-show patrons would find off-putting: the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II, when the vast majority of these almost entirely loyal citizens were forcibly relocated to internment camps. Stigmatized as security risks, they were compelled to live till war’s end in miserable conditions. Thanks to their uprooting from the pre-war lives they had built, they suffered tremendous loss of property as well as deep emotional wounds. For Japanese Americans, even those born generations after 1945, the trauma and the complicated feelings the experience occasioned remain salient elements in their perception of America.

But honesty is an ethical principle, not an aesthetic approach. Allegiance faced a huge struggle in trying to pair its somber historical truths with its essentially cheery escapist form. In the end, that slippage was more visible to audiences than either the history or the good cheer. Onstage, internment camp life often seemed sparklingly clean and jolly, despite dialogue cues to the contrary; dramatic conflicts tended to crop up arbitrarily, in lumpy patches, with a particularly unwieldy lump shoved in all too hurriedly at the end. These were the honest mistakes of honest craftsmen striving to say something that mattered deeply to them. But on Broadway you pay for your mistakes, honest or otherwise, at the box office.

Still, honesty deserves respect, as does the desire to speak truth. And where craftsmanship is at work, there are often moments of true achievement, as there were in Allegiance‘s performances. Lea Salonga, whose voice has ripened and strengthened in tone since Miss Saigon, sang angelically in the female lead; Telly Leung brought vivid energy and panache to the central role of her brother, and there was more beautiful singing by Katie Rose Clarke, as the Army nurse he inappropriately loves. And George Takei — making his Broadway debut at this late date! — brought a delicate, precise charm to the role of their grandfather.

Takei brought authenticity, too: The camps were a part of his childhood (he was eight when the war ended); his recollections, and his determination that the experience of the camps not be forgotten, were the cause of the work’s creation. He has called Allegiance his “legacy project.” And that legacy, befitting the experience, is a complex one. From his vantage point at the show’s center, Takei has spoken out firmly, on the air and via social media, about the new right-wing movements afoot to do to Muslim Americans what was done to Japanese Americans generations ago.

That Allegiance will close while other Broadway shows (including some of lesser moral value but greater skill) keep running constitutes a sad fact of life but underscores the theater’s willingness to face reality. I only wish that, instead of Allegiance, the show closing were the big, bullying, manipulative right-wing performance against which Takei has stood up so firmly, on a whole host of issues, from same-sex marriage to global warming. The Republican tough-talkers who drape themselves in military postures while voting against veterans’ benefits could learn a few things from the truths embedded in Allegiance. I hope some of them catch it before it closes.

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