Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Allegiance, the Broadway musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is not the most flawlessly rendered musical you will ever see. Some of its lyrics are a little clunky, some of its character motivations don't quite resonate, and some of its scenes feel a little heavy handed. I agree, for the most part, with the criticisms my fellow blogger Sandra listed in her review of the show, which she posted on Show Showdown a few weeks back. But like Sandra, I ultimately fell for Allegiance nonetheless: It's honest, earnest, and charming, and it manages to shed light on an ugly chapter in American history without being too pedantic on the one hand, or too flip on the other. It has some rough spots, sure, but they were hardly disruptive enough to keep me from rooting for its (wholly well-performed) characters, connecting with its swiftly-paced plot, or surreptitiously swiping big fat tears from my eyes in the final moments. In short, for its flaws, Allegiance does exactly what a Broadway musical is supposed to do: entertain its audiences, perhaps teach them a thing or two about inclusion (an endlessly reiterated tenet in American musicals), and move them emotionally with song, dance, and plot.

Matthew Murphy
With all this in mind, I suppose I agree, as well, with Charles Isherwood's assessment of the aesthetic shortcomings noted his review in the New York Times. Yet his final comment, which he seems to have intended as something of a sting, has been stuck in my head for days: "If anything, the authors, feeling the responsibility of illuminating this shameful chapter in American history, pack the show with so much incident and information that 'Allegiance' often feels more like a history lesson than a musical. A singing history lesson, yes, but a history lesson nonetheless." This comment has stuck with me not because I agree with it--rather, I can't shake it because it really, really pisses me off.

Don't get me wrong, here: I tend to agree as often as not with Isherwood, but even when I don't, his opinions don't usually anger me. Most critics don't--I read tons of criticism while doing research, I appreciate it for what it is, and I almost never take it personally. I'm not arguing here that Isherwood should have raved about--or even more enthusiastically embraced--a show that clearly didn't work for him. It's a bummer that Allegiance didn't charm him as it did me, but, hey, that's criticism for you; that's showbiz. What irks me is that in his writeup, he focuses almost entirely on Allegiance's aesthetic shortcomings, only to sum up his review by bluntly accusing the musical of being somehow too much about history for his liking.

Now, if you ask me, the state of the world at present implies that the average person could use a little more history than the amount we're all currently getting. But even if you disagree, why specifically accuse Allegiance of attempting to both entertain and educate when there are so many history lessons taking place elsewhere on Broadway right now? Hamilton, too, is a singing history lesson, and I don't see the Times--or anyone else--griping about that, even a little. If we're going to get down to brass tacks, there are significant historical aspects to lots of the musicals running right now: An American in Paris (set after World War II), Beautiful (American pop during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s), Jersey Boys (ditto), and Les fucking Miz (early 19th century France). I can think of countless, particularly cherished classic musicals, too--from 1776 to Evita--that could easily be described as singing history lessons. Jesus Christ Superstar? Little bit of history in there. Fiddler? Yeah, there too. Cabaret? Annie, Get Your Gun? Ragtime? History, history, history. So why dis Allegiance on this front? Especially since it takes such pains to depict an aspect of the American experience that hasn't shown up on a Broadway stage before? And especially since it attempts to consider the Japanese-American internment from a broad number of points of view?

Here's some history for you: Broadway musicals have, basically from inception, catered to middle- and upper-class white people. In the 1920s--which is when Broadway finally desegregated its theaters and let people of color sit in the orchestra seats--the mass audience for Broadway musicals was something like 90% white. Almost a century later, there's been shamefully little movement on the demographic front: as of the 2013-14 season, a whopping 80% of all Broadway tickets were purchased by Caucasians.

What's particularly, bitingly ironic here is that inclusiveness matters a whole lot when it comes to the American stage musical. Think about it--most shows end with at least some nod to the importance of community and of social cohesion, however loosely defined: Jud dies, but everyone else in Oklahoma! bonds together and lives happily ever after. Chino shoots Tony, but the rest of the Sharks and Jets get yelled at by Maria and realize that they should probably try to stop being such assholes to one another. Mimi comes back to life with a chipper message from Angel and the cast of Rent rejoices over how great it is that they can all hang out some more. Hedwig/Tommy reunite and the cast sings a big rocking anthem while bonding with the audience. The setting might change, but the underlying message is often the same: we should all understand and love each other because the world will be a better, happier place if we do. The American stage musical hands us a slice of the American dream over and over and over again.

Allegiance is no different, at least on this front: the show ends with acceptance and forgiveness and an embrace not only of family but of country. And the entire show is about community and inclusiveness: it regularly takes pains to demonstrate, on the one hand, the characters' adherence to the Japanese concept of gaman--enduring unbearable and bitterly unfair hardship with dignity and patience--and, on the other, to their very Americanness. Scenes featuring characters suffering endless indignities at the hands of the US government are carefully interspersed with those in which the prisoners--all of them Americans, after all--keep their spirits up by doing what comes naturally: playing baseball, doing the Lindy, listening to pop songs on the radio, dreaming of the freedom this country is supposed to grant all of its citizens.

American musicals idealize the American experience, and the more the genre embraces all Americans--not just the white, affluent ones--the more truly welcoming and inclusive Broadway will be. Allegiance is not a perfect show, but it's certainly worthy of an audience. And sure, Isherwood is right: said audience might find some of the lyrics a little forced, or a few of the scenes a little less than perfectly fluid. But the musical does, indeed, provide an important history lesson--and the musical shouldn't be criticized for that. To accuse Allegiance for being a little frayed around the edges? Fine. To dismiss it for reflecting American history? Give me a break--and go get a ticket.

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