ALLEGIANCE fabrications just part of larger problem, critics say

Part Three of a continuing conversation. See Parts One and Two.

Guardian headline

Fabrication of the story of the Heart Mountain resisters is not high on the list of problems identified by critics of the musical Allegiance — although the most important of them did single out issues raised by our first critique and linked to this blog. No, foremost among their complaints is the other failing we pointed out: the derivative book, lacking  in authentic sensibility, devoid of artistic merit, and wrapped around bombastic songs stuffed with platitudinous lyrics and generic melodies. The mostly tepid reviews could depress the show’s box office and dampen the length of its run on Broadway.

review blurbsYou won’t see blurbs from these reviews touted in any Facebook ads. So here is a highly selective look at the bad reviews that back up our take on the show. As rated by the trade journal Broadway World, they add up to a cumulative reception of just 6.8 on a scale of 10.

The most-watched reaction on Broadway remains the review in the New York Times. Critic Charles Isherwood asked for a copy of our DVD, and recognized there is a real story lurking here:NY Times review

As we said before, the problem with Alleigiance is not one of inexactness but the fundamental fabrication of events that were impossible to occur in the real world and which cheapen the integrity of the Heart Mountain resistance. Nevertheless, it’s enough that the point is raised in the newspaper of record, leading more than a thousand curious readers to follow the link and discover this blog.

Jonathan Mandell at DC Theater Scene wrote at greater length to alert readers to these fabrications: “Abe accuses Allegiance of being riddled with historical inaccuracies. His major objection is to what he considers the exaggerated harshness, with the conditions at Heart Mountain presented in the musical closer to Stalag 17, he says, than historical reality … While there were armed guards manning watchtowers, no weapons were permitted inside the camp itself, a fact that renders the most dramatic scenes in the musical ‘preposterous.’ … Most theatergoers would probably dismiss Abe’s concerns as the quibbles of a passionate historian.”

But Mandrell has written elsewhere about the tension between “History vs. Theatre,” and he applies his test to this show: “The problem of authenticity pops up in a different way. Allegiance too often feels as if the creative team were working from a Broadway musical checklist: Here’s your romance, your soaring Broadway ballad, your lively dance number, your comic relief, your Les Miz grimness, your climactic moment of violence. The foreground plot involving Sammy’s relationship with Hannah the white nurse in the camp (Katie Rose Clark), and his complicated relationship with his sister and with her love interest Frankie, is not just unlikely; it sucks up far more attention than it deserves. It doesn’t seem an honest reflection of an egregious moment in history created by fear and bigotry. Rather, it feels imposed by producers motivated by a different fear – that they can’t otherwise bring in a Broadway audience.”

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Most reviews give  Allegiance credit just for showing up, with a weighty subject usually euphemistically described as “a dark chapter in American history.” Many then go on to pan the book, lyrics, and music. Two trade journals, Playbill and Broadway World, have posted summary pages with links to all the reviews:amNY headline

amNewYork, Matt Windman: “George Takei musical sunk by score, plot, staging” —  
It’s so depressing when a new musical that explores an important historical event turns out to have so many problems … The musical gets derailed by Jay Kuo’s weak score (full of derivative music and pedestrian lyrics) … considering the show’s problems, it is unlikely to find a wide audience.”

Associated Press headline

Associated Press, Mark Kennedy: “Musical ‘Allegiance’ is heavy-handed missed chance” — The heavy-handed, cliche-driven ‘Allegiance’ … a bombastic and generic Broadway musical. .. an old-fashioned, stereotypical style that’s out of touch with where Broadway is going … Each song in the musical seems to swell into a full-throated anthem, growing more swollen with every note, shooting up to the ceiling and then curling back onto themselves. The songs are simply trying too hard. The thick lyrics also spoon-feed the story as if we couldn’t already see what was happening. (“I thought I’d face the enemy/But I fell in love instead,” sings a nurse who already has told us why she enlisted and we have seen fall in love.) Here’s a typical overwrought line: “My blood to offer/So others might live” …So much subtlety is lost in the paper-thin characters and reliance on formula … This team couldn’t quite nail it. With such an important subject on the line, and blessed with a talented, hard-working cast, the creators of “Allegiance” missed a ground-breaking opportunity.”

Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout: “Land of the Unfree” — “Allegiance” … is of no artistic value whatsoever, save as an object lesson in how to write a really bad Broadway musical … peopled with characters made of solid cardboard. The Japanese-Americans are all noble and true, the Caucasians yawping apes save for a bosomy blonde nurse from Nebraska who—stop press—falls for an internee: “When I stepped into this prison / Who knew what lay ahead? / I thought I’d face the enemy / But I fell in love instead.” Jay Kuo’s songs sound like they were written with a Banal Broadway Ballad App … The show itself is a dud—and a missed opportunity.”

Guardian headlineThe Guardian (UK), Alexis Soloski: “George Takei can’t save Broadway’s mediocre pledge” — “Story on stage fails to deliver distinctive and rich performances …  striving so hard for stirring nobility that individuality or particular characterization falls by the wayside. The ballads are all sufficiently ballad-y, but none of the melodies linger once the curtain has fallen and the lyrics pile on platitude and cliché.”

Variety, Marilyn Stasio: “Authentic moments are few and fleeting, overwhelmed by standard love songs and musical soliloquies about personal feelings. In their sincere efforts to “humanize” their complex historical material, the creatives have oversimplified and reduced it to generic themes … Complicated political issues are restricted to surface elements. (Conditions at the real Heart Mountain Camp were more interesting than the death-camp environment pictured here.)”

Circling back to Charles Isherwood in the New York Times“Much of the score of Allegiance has a similar feel, as if Mr. Kuo has long kept ‘Les MIsérables’ and ‘Miss Saigon” on permanent rotation on his iPod.”

New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz: “Kuo’s score careens from grand pop opera anthems to earnest but trivial self-help filler songs with titles like ‘Resist,’ ‘Higher’ and ‘Our Time Now.'”

Time Out New York two starsTime Out New York, David Cote: “… Crumples things badly … (Salonga’s) glorious singing is so much better than the generic, clunkily worded ballads and anthems Jay Kuo has produced … There’s a complex tale of honor, shame and assimilation here, but it’s been stretched out to cartoonish billboard size.”

The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney: “An important story that hasn’t found its ideal form as a musical … The powerful sentiments involved are too often flattened by the pedestrian lyrics and unmemorable melodies of Jay Kuo’s score, making an unconvincing case for this material’s suitability to be a musical  … The broad-strokes storytelling of a musical (or this one, at least) seems ill-suited to examining such complex issues, and the book’s superficial character development doesn’t help either. Maybe masters of the dark like Kander & Ebb might have been able to do this story justice in song, but Kuo and his co-writers are not up to the task, sacrificing the specifics in their bland focus on universal themes of love, family and redemption.”

Even the cheerleading trade journal Broadway World could not overlook the obvious, via Michael Dale: “Lacks a score that meets the emotional demands of its subject. While audience members may certainly be moved to tears to see such a tragic episode in American history depicted before them, Kuo’s didactic, perfunctory lyrics and bland music are dramatically uninspired. … The score of Allegiance never offers the story the unique emotional textures that can make musical theatre so gratifying. This is a great topic for a musical and the talented company plays it admirably, but Allegiance, while certainly not a bad theatre piece, is an underachieving one.”

We’ll give the last word to one of our readers: “My wife’s grandfather was in the 442 and from Hawaii. We went to the play a couple weeks ago and she was crushed at the 442 portrayal, especially the dance number following the A-Bomb. Her comment was it was the story of war and internment as written by a college student sifting through Wikipedia. It was disappointing and I am grateful for your fact-checking.”

Broadway is a business, and the weekly grosses as reported by Broadway World are the key to watch. The numbers show that since the first week of box office chartpreviews, the average number of seats sold for Allegiance has dropped off 40 percent, an average of 3,000 fewer tickets sold per week. With aggressive discounting, weekly grosses are off by 44 percent to fall below $350,000. The show’s fate will depend on where those grosses stand in relation to the size of the show’s “nut,” or the amount of money it must take in every week to pay the cast, crew, and theater rental.

The sagging ticket sales suggest that if you simply must see this show live in New York, you should not wait past the holidays into the cold and snow of January, when business drops off across the board and many shows announce a closing date. As the New York Post brutally put it, “The vultures are circling: Word on the street is that ‘Prince of Broadway,’ the Hal Prince musical, is eyeing the theater for the spring.”

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