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Beam us up, George: Takei to speak at U-M

Jamie Sherman Blinder

The University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance has the unique opportunity to bring the teachings from their classrooms into a once-in-a-lifetime experience with activist and actor George Takei.

Best known as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, Takei has appeared in more than 40 feature films and countless television roles, and is a Grammy-nominated recording artist and New York Times bestselling author.

He is also a civil rights activist bringing valuable attention to the LGBTQIA+ movement, and has, importantly, shed light on an underrecognized piece of American history: the forcible incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII, where his own family spent three years during his childhood.

Takei will speak Monday, April 1, to SMTD students about his internment camp experience and the Broadway musical that was inspired by it, “Allegiance.” A second talk by Takei, which is free to the public, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at the Power Center.

The many interwoven connections that conspired to make this U-M engagement possible start with Takei and Lynne Shankel, an SMTD professor who worked as the music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator on “Allegiance.” She was approached by the show’s director and her longtime friend, Stafford Arima, to work on the show.

Also starring in this production was actor Telly Leung, who is currently guest directing SMTD’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” opening next month. Leung and Arima will join Takei in the April 1 discussion with students.

But to really bring these connections home, Brent Wagner, professor emeritus and chair emeritus of U-M’s Department of Musical Theatre, has been teaching around “Allegiance” as part of his course curriculum since 2021, and has known Shankel since her time as an SMTD student. In fact, he saw “Allegiance” in its original Broadway run and met up with Shankel afterwards.

“Luckily we were able to film the Broadway version—it’s been shown in theaters across the country—and because of this, Brent Wagner is able to teach ‘Allegiance’ as part of his musical theater history class,” Shankel said. 

“He is very aware of pieces that expand the musical theater canon beyond the base of its history, which is a whole lot of white people. That is a big part of what he teaches, and a big part of why I’m here and what we do. The whole mission of the musical theater writing minor is to have different faces, different voices, involved in writing the material that we perform.”

Credited with starting the Department of Musical Theatre at U-M, Wagner began teaching “Allegiance” in an online-semester during the pandemic. He had Shankel and Leung join a Zoom class to speak with the students about their experience working on the show. In the time since those initial online class discussions, Shankel has joined the U-M faculty, and when Wagner asked her if she might speak to his class again in 2024, she said she had set her sights much higher.

This year, the stars aligned with timing and location, and she was able to arrange for Takei, Leung and Arima all to reunite and speak with students as part of her Monday Lab series—a weekly session for students to hear from guests and industry experts of different professional backgrounds, from casting agents, composers and lyricists to actors and directors.

“It’s always valuable for the students to go back and hear how a production originated and how it developed, because writing for musical theater is a very inexact science,” Wagner said. “These shows are tested and rewritten so many times, and even then, you really never know what you have until you put it in front of an audience. It’s a magical field, but getting there is a real challenge and I want the students to know they are a real part of this process.” 

“Allegiance” exemplifies the importance of musical theater and its unique ability to touch on political and difficult subject matter in a very accessible way, he said. For example, the show was in its preview run as the 2016 election cycle was revving up. Donald Trump had made a controversial statement regarding whether he would, or would not, have supported the Japanese internment camps during WWII.

“In response, George was all over the news media talking about how dangerous that comment was, and said that for every performance of the show that we had on Broadway, we saved a seat for Donald Trump,” Shankel said. 

“George knew Trump from ‘The Apprentice’ and said, ‘Donald, we want to invite you to this show so you can learn about what the internment was actually like.’ So we saved a seat that had a little card on it that said ‘Reserved for Donald Trump’ and it was empty every night of the run.

“Musical theater is a living thing and I think that sometimes we can address things in theater that are difficult to address in real life. Through acting and song and dance, we can kind of find our way to people’s hearts in a way that is hard to do when you’re just reading the newspaper with horrible headline after horrible headline.”

Wagner said, “The great thing about musical theater is that whenever the music comes in, we are sharing the heart and soul of the characters through the emotion the music conveys; I like to say, the words in a song appeal to our intellect and give us information, but the music gives us the emotional part of it.

“Unlike in a book or a documentary, musical theater conventions allow us to enter their world, find out what they’re thinking. The character can explore their own thoughts through music and lyrics and try to figure out issues they would have trouble verbalizing, and we get to be a part of their journey. Music really connects us to a character.”
Tickets to “An Evening with George Takei” can be reserved at the Michigan Union Ticket Office.