8Questions: Interview with ‘Allegiance’ actor Michael K. Lee

Michael K. Lee performs in Allegiance with Lea Salonga
Michael K. Lee performs in Allegiance with Lea Salonga
Michael K. Lee performs in Allegiance with Lea Salonga

As a reader of 8Asians, you’re probably aware of the Broadway musical Allegiance, currently running at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. Featuring the talent of George Takei, Lea Salonga and Telly Leung, Allegiance opened on November 8th to positive critical acclaim. A show about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the musical is already making waves with original songs such as “Gaman,” “What Makes A Man” and Salonga’s uplifting and inspirational performance of “Higher.”

One part of Allegiance that captures an authentically American spirit of rebelliousness is the song “Paradise,” an energetic ensemble performance led by Michael K. Lee as the resolute draft resister Frankie Suzuki. A boisterous big band buster seething with saucy snark and swing, “Paradise” expresses the cynical sentiments of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee as they protested the government’s efforts to enlist them while their families remained incarcerated.

Thanks to The Fairy Princess, we had the chance to chat with Michael about his role in Allegiance:

I know the show has changed considerably since San Diego, with a few changes since previews began on October 6th. Can you share with us some of the changes?

The show has evolved a great deal since San Diego– You know, the show has evolved a great deal since first preview! Haha… all done with the express purpose of streamlining the story. On Broadway alone, we’ve added a new opening number, “Wishes on the Wind,” a new community/baseball scene, a new victory swing, and a new finale, “Still a Chance.” Seriously. And I’m not letting the cat out of the bag here, because I think anyone who was able to see our first shows and have been lucky enough to see it after opening have been privy to these changes. And they’re all so great.

Since the San Diego production, I think all of the characters have really been given dimension. Kei (Salonga) is stronger, Sammy (Telly Leung) more resolute with his convictions. My character Frankie has also been given more form, focus, and determination. Also, in San Diego– I didn’t sing my proposal to Kei!

Your character, Frankie Suzuki, was a rather rebellious character compared with Sammy. Knowing what you know about the incarceration, which side do you think you would have taken (Sammy, Frankie, maybe even Mike Masaoka)?

You want me to fight as an American? Then treat me as an American.

It’s a tough question. I was a social psychology major at Stanford, and one of the things I learned is that social circumstance dictates social behavior. If I were a young man in 1940s, wrongly imprisoned for my ethnicity, I think I would have done everything in my power to prove people wrong. I know when I was in high school, I did everything possible to fit in and be just like everyone else. My family was the only Asian family where I grew up in upstate New York. When the stakes are that high, I think the exuberance/naïveté of youth would have propelled me to fight and join the 442nd Regiment. But after graduating from college, studying Asian American history, knowing about the civil rights era now– in a post-Vietnam War era– I think I would have done what Frankie did: You want me to fight as an American? Then treat me as an American.

To what extent did you have any input into the development of the character Frankie? Was Frankie based on any real-life person or persons in particular?

My character of Frankie Suzuki is loosely (or not so loosely) based on the real life man, Frank Emi. I am an instrument to the words and music of my incredible creators, Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione, and Jay Kuo. I didn’t contribute much except for my passion for the work and my love of this story.

DAMN, I just checked out Frank Emi and his story was intense. I’d love to see his story as a member of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee fleshed out a bit more, perhaps on the silver screen (Allegiance‘s Greg Watanabe actually starred in No-No Boy about the committee in 2010).

How did you come to be cast in this role? Had you auditioned or been considered for the other roles?

Our producers and book writers Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo came to see a production of The Last 5 Years in Los Angeles in 2009. After seeing the show, they asked me if I’d be interested in being a part of this new project called Allegiance. I believe they were introduced to the theater by George (Takei) who is a major supporter of the theater, which was East West Players, the foremost Asian American theater in the country. That essentially was my introduction to them, and they generously never had me audition to be a part of this project from that moment on. The show has gone through many versions… When we did our first reading, I played the part of Sammy’s older brother, James. James has now been excised, and Frankie was born.

What are some compelling reasons that would make people want to go see Allegiance?

It’s a story of how a community overcame the worst of adversities, and found– life. Every part of life– love and hate, joy and sorrow, life and death.

Among the many compelling reasons, the first and foremost reason is just to become informed about this long forgotten part of American History. It truly is a glorious American musical– storytelling through song and dance that showed how resilient a community was under the brutal dictates of a fearful country. It’s a story of how a community overcame the worst of adversities, and found– life. Every part of life– love and hate, joy and sorrow, life and death. It’s really a lovely piece.

How did you feel about the fact that you were being cast opposite Lea, and what should the world know about working with her?

Lea Salonga is a bona fide theater legend. A fierce Diva of Divas. I consider myself lucky to be able to perform with her eight times a week. She is one of the most naturally gifted actresses I know. She works incredibly hard and has a sharp and unique instinct in performance. I’ve learned a lot from working with her.

What do you think the world should know about working with George Takei, and what surprises you the most about him?

George Takei works tirelessly for things and people he loves. He has worked diligently on every aspect of this show: from the words to the music, to the dance! He’s an incredible human being with an endless amount of love for the world around him. To know him and not be changed is impossible. One of the best men I know, in every way.

Everyone is talking about how Lea Salonga’s performance of “Higher,” and I believe she totally killed it with those pipes of hers. But my favorite piece of the whole show, as you know, was your performance in “Paradise.” What’s yours?

“Paradise” is also my favorite piece. Not only because I sing it, but because I love its cynical but playful perspective. It’s a really, really smart number– and a helluva lot of fun to perform.

Sammy’s (Telly Leung) vitriol against your character, Frankie, is just so palpable onstage. It makes me wonder: Do you get to go out for beers with Telly after the show?

Telly Leung is one of my dearest friends. He and my wife became very close through the 2002 Broadway Revival of Flower Drum Song, and then we all got to work together in the 2004 Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures. I have a huge admiration for Telly, and am constantly amazed by his talent and energy. Nothing that happens onstage translates to offstage. He was the first non-family member to hold my first son. I love him dearly. And we don’t need the show to find an excuse to drink together.

Tell us about your career in Korea, and if working in different cities affects your family life.

I’ve been based in Korea for about 3 years prior to my return to the United States for Allegiance. Korea is now the 2nd largest musical producing country in the world next to Broadway, I believe. I think it just surpassed the [London’s] West End. I may be wrong, but it’s at least in the top three. Regardless– it’s an incredibly exciting place to be right now because there is just so much going on over there. Dreamgirls did a pre-Broadway run there, and Kinky Boots did their first non-Broadway production there two years ago. Though I’ve been incredibly blessed with a wonderful career in the U.S., going to Korea to work has given me far more opportunities in terms of roles than I would have ever had here. For example, I was able to play the American soldier Chris in Miss Saigon there, Tick in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Dusoleil in Amour. And because there is so much being produced, I was just able to continuously work on my craft for almost 3 years straight. Literally, I had not had a break in about two and a half years. I’d perform a show at night, and rehearse another during the day! A lot of my growth as an actor is a result of all those work opportunities in Korea.

I won’t lie and say that it has been easy for my family– but 100% credit goes to my incredible wife, Broadway actress Kim Varhola. She makes everything work, and has allowed me to take work where it will help me most. To be honest, coming back to Broadway wasn’t an easy decision because of the stress and strain it puts on us– being separated. She’s the smartest person I know, and the most patient. She knew Korea was the best place for me, and therefore us, when we first went out there in 2012, and she also knew that Allegiance was the right project for right now as well. She’s always right!

What is it about being in Korea that affords you the opportunities in Miss Saigon, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Amour compared to the roles available to you here in New York?

Simply put, my face doesn’t put me at a disadvantage to playing certain parts in Korea as it does here in the United States.

A fair question. But an obvious answer. It’s my face.

As actors, we are blessed and saddled with the image we’ve been born with as the instruments with which we play our music. Simply put, my face doesn’t put me at a disadvantage to playing certain parts in Korea as it does here in the United States.

I consider myself very lucky with regard to my career here in the United States. I’ve been able to perform on Broadway in some of great projects because of my Asian heritage (Pacific Overtures and Miss Saigon). I don’t expect to be cast in Raisin in the Sun or Show Boat. What is there for me? The greatest asset a performer can have is a good idea of what he or she has to offer. There are realities we have to accept and deal with, and push on. We need to start controlling the means of production– be it producing, directing, writing– in order to help represent on stage and screen what accurately reflects the world around us. I don’t mind not seeing Les Miserables with all white people. Do I celebrate it when it is cast multi-culturally? Of course, I do.

Our faces tell a a story, and that is something I celebrate. My face– the face of Michael K. Lee– tells a story from my black hair and eyes and my almond shaped eyes. I won’t deny that it tells the story of an Asia from long ago– but what I hope for is that the world won’t deny it also tells the story of a boy who was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, grew up in Salamanca, NY, who went to school at Stanford and became an actor. My face shouldn’t limit me to one story.

That’s what I would hope future creators and artists would see. This is what it means to be American. It’s as simple and as complicated as that!

Thank you Michael. Best of luck with Allegiance, and I hope the (hopefully long) run of Allegiance will lead to more opportunities for American audiences to bear witness to your talent on future Broadway shows!

Allegiance: A New Musical Inspired by a True Story

Now running at The Longacre Theatre, 220 W 48th Street, New York, NY

Box Office Hours
Mon-Sat: 10:00am-8:30pm
Sun: 12:00pm-6:00pm
Phone: 212-239-6200
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Entrada is a management consultant, literacy advocate, and the primary zookeeper in charge of two primates, aged 8 and 6. He has also contributed to FrugalAsianDad, RealMerican Media, FictionDiversity, and RiceDaddies.

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