San Diego To Broadway
Cinema Junkie / May 13, 2016
Cinema Junkie serves up two archive interviews featuring Steve Martin and George Takai, both of whom have musicals currently on Broadway that premiered at the Old Globe Theatre.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. [music plays] Ok, for today’s podcast I’m going to go a little off topic. To look at a pair of musicals that had their world premieres here in San Diego and are now on Broadway. But both “Allegiance” and “Bright Star” involve creative talent the film goers will readily recognize. Actor George Takei calls “Allegiance” his legacy project, because it deals with issues close to his heart about Japanese American internment during World War II. And “Bright Star” has a book by Actor, Director, and Comedian Steve Martin.
Both works were generating a lot of buzz for this year’s Tony nominations. But when the nominations were announced on May 3rd, Allegiance was left out in the cold. While Bright Star walked away with an impressive five nominations, including best musical. Both musicals made their world premiere at The Old Globe Theater. The Globe's artistic director, Barry Edelstein, explains The Globes commitment to providing a launching pad for new American musicals.
Barry Edelstein: Why is the musical important to The Globe? Well, right the musical is the quintessential American theatrical form. Nobody does them better than Americans. And this meeting of storytelling through song and storytelling through text is something that has, especially in the twentieth century, been raised to an extraordinary level of excellence by American writers and composers and theater people. Also interestingly, in the case of Bright Star, there is a very conscious effort by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell to capture that kind of classic American musical feeling. Which, I think they have. The Globe has originated many, many musicals going back to the mid 1980’s. I think largely because it was a private, personal interest of Jack O'Brien, who was the artistic director of the theater at the time, although The Globe had done musicals before Jack’s time here. But he really had distinguished himself as a director of musicals and started creating them here at The Globe. And then many of them moved on to future success in New York and elsewhere around the country. So, it's become something that The Globe’s audience has really come to expect. We do it at a very high level of excellence and so we wish to continue that commitment.
Beth Accomando: At a press conference on August 28th, 2014 Edelstein recounted how “Bright star” came to The Globe.
Barry Edelstein: “Bright Star” is something exceedingly rare in the American Theater. A wholly original, new musical. The Globe’s been involved with the project for a little bit over 2 years now. The first inkling I had of it was before I was the artistic director at The Globe. Steve Martin and I have known each other for a while and we were working on a production of Shakespeare's “As You Like It” in New York. For which Steve had composed a score of the banjo, and bluegrass & roots music.
One day over lunch he was telling me about this extraordinary new collaboration that he was developing with Edie Brickell, another Giant in American entertainment. That collaboration of course led to their album “Love Has Come for You” and the Grammy award-winning title song from that album. Steve said “you know Edie and I have this inkling about maybe working on a musical.” A year later, I found myself the artistic director one of the great producers of musical theater in the United States and I said “hey Steve remember you told me about that musical, “and he sent me a draft of “Bright Star”.
Different from the show that’s going to Premier, at The Globe, after now two years of development, but even then in a very early draft fresh, fun, and deeply, deeply moving and I remember vividly sitting down to read it and when I got to the big moment in the show literally, weeping and I called Steve and I said “please tell Edie The Globe would love to do this let's get started.”
Beth Accomando: “Bright Star” created by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, had its World premiere in September of 2014 at The Old Globe Theater. The musical was inspired by a true story about a woman with a secret and a young man returning from war and wanting to start a new life as a writer. Hollywood, which produced a steady flow of musicals for decades, has more recently seemed to have forgotten how to break into song. But on stage does artifice can seem like the most natural thing if you know how to do it right. For Brickell, it seems perfectly natural.
Edie Brickell: The music was in the air. Music was the food of our household, if my mom was struggling or in a mood she put on music. So she always had on music. [Laughter] a very hard-working woman and I admire the energy that she brought to the house. When she played music and danced around and forgot her troubles.
Beth Accomando: Brickell and Martin are newbies to the musical form. They have chosen a style of music for “Bright Star” mainly Bluegrass. Which is unconventional for the stage but Edelstein says there's nothing naive going on here. Instead, there's a very high degree of sophistication. Here is my interview with Steve Martin as the musical was beginning rehearsals at The Old Globe Theatre in September of 2014. You may be surprised to find out what makes this wild and crazy guy cry.
I had read that you said you accidentally got into stand-up comedy. Do you feel that where you are now writing a musical play is something that is any more planned or accidental?
Steve Martin: Well wasn't it certainly wasn't planned from ten to fifteen years ago. But, it was planned in the last two or three years, because since I started working with Edie Brickell and started writing music with her. We had talked about musicals and how much we love them and how much we were moved by them. Especially ones we grew up with, but we knew that our music was heartfelt and essentially narrative. Not the “Musical” music has to be narrative. But, we thought that our music sort of fit in to the musical style. And once we found a story that we liked then we just started working on it.
Beth Accomando: What were the musicals that you grew up with, that you fell in love with?
Steve Martin: The Sound of Music, Oklahoma was one of the first musicals I heard. Music Man was a musical I've just adored. [Music] Fact I’ve memorized most of it. It was one of the first albums I bought. I was introduced to it before the movie was made through records. I even memorized the opening number which is I think one of the earliest rap songs, meaning that it was a rhythmic speaking. [Music] So, I had a good education with these great, great musicals.
Beth Accomando: Now musicals had a peak of popularity in movies, like in the thirties forties and fifties. And then it's kind of waned since then but, musicals have really always remained very strong in theatre. What do you think makes them so much more kind of, accessible and acceptable within the theatrical realm?
Steve Martin: They come and they go in the movies. There have been some recent ones I know Les Miserable I think I'll have to look at the history of it. But, they kind of come and go but they don't know. Also, that there were these great musicals that were so popular that they just were made into movies. I don't think there's been any that have been so popular certainly Spamalot and that probably will be made into a movie I don't know. But, they're there was a lot of great minds looking at the musical in the forties and fifties.
Beth Accomando: Now when you’re writing a musical. How do you decide, at what point do you need the dialogue to then become a song or to then become move into dance?
Steve Martin: It just becomes apparent. You have to be careful but the song doesn't reiterate the scene. It can certainly express an emotion and sometimes the song becomes a kind of a story in itself. Or, it can become an expression of the singer’s emotion in case of a love song. So I mean that's just part of what you have to do, you have to figure out when the song comes or when it doesn't come. Because, I don't’ like to go to musicals that for they sing all the way through. I like it when there's a scene as a respite from the music and talk, and then they sing. I always like it when the song starts out it always makes me cry little bit.
Beth Accomando: Somebody I think said that people break into song when kind of words fail them or when they run out of words that are appropriate.
Steve Martin: It might be. I haven’t looked at it that way, but you know whenever you get to a point in the scene where one character, not in these words, but then says “what do you think about that?” You feel a song coming on.
Beth Accomando: At the press conference, the first song involves the young man. Can you tell me a little bit or set up a little bit about that?
Steve Martin: Yes, that’s the opening scene by the all the scenes at the press conference were truncated but if it is a young man coming home from World War II. He's essentially saying I'm home and I'm ready for my life to begin. And you follow him on his journey from wherever he was dropped off at the play takes place in North Carolina, in 1945. [Music] [00:10:00] and you follow him, through song, on his way home, to where he sees his father. And he has decided, while he was away, what he wants to do in his life. And, he can’t wait to tell his father and mother what he’s decided to become.
Beth Accomando: Now the press conference gave a hint. Of what the actual stage performance will be like but it seems like there’s a lot of fluidity, in terms of movement in time and place.
Steve Martin: Yes, it was a conception on the part of Walter Bobbie, the director, and Josh Rhodes, choreographer, and that includes Eugene Levy, set designer. How the stage could be fluid so it wasn't lights go dark then lights come up as the scenes change. Because, there's a lot of locations and would be difficult to change sets all the time. And it's actually quite beautiful to watch how it works and the transitions are done musically. There is always music going on during the transitions from seeing the scene and also that it helps the audience get comfortable with the music. Because, you hear music sometimes before a song comes on you'll hear the themes of that song. Or, you'll hear a reprieve of the song has the sets are being changed that are relevant I hope to the scene.
Beth Accomando: How would you describe the collaboration Edie Brickell? How do you work together creating these songs?
Steve Martin: It’s been practically effortless, we kind of run everything by each other. Except when it comes to music I essentially compose chords and kind of background melodies. It hasn’t always worked this way I’m being very general. Background melodies, and then she runs off with it and writes lyrics and often what we call top line melodies and comes back with a song. And then we tweak it where it needs to be tweaked. It’s been an amazing process. And she’s proven to be an incredible musical lyric writer. That has gone beyond anything I have ever seen her do before. Meaning she can write lyrics for multiple voices in a scene. There might be three to or four people singing at the same time.
Beth Accomando: And when I was speaking to her I mentioned in a musical sometimes you know is it difficult to see people just break into song. And for her she was like “well for me it's like people break into song all the time”. For her it didn't seem like there's [overlapping conversation] so I’m curious for you what role did music play in your life. Was it something that was always there?
Steve Martin: Like I said I grew up with musicals is being very emotional and very emotional form. So as I watch our rehearsals, I never find it odd that in fact I always find it quite moving or funny or whatever needs to be when the when the music slips in. And you know when you watch a movie there's always music going you just don’t notice it. And it's really part of our American landscape to hear background music to everything and in this case the actors are participating and I think we're so used to it that it doesn't look funny at all.
Beth Accomando: And when did you actually start playing an instrument?
Steve Martin: When I was 16, I started playing the banjo and never stopped.
Beth Accomando: How did you learn? I heard that you actually learned by slowing down some records?
Steve Martin: Yeah, I thought I invented it but I thought it was a technique that a lot of players used back in the days when there weren't instructors in your local area. You could take a 33 RPM record tune your instrument down. In this case, a banjo tuned it down and plays it back at 16 and you could pick out the notes. And so I could copy Earl Scruggs and just figure out what he was doing by playing it back very, very slowly. And, it was it was a learning how to do something anyway you could. I had a friend, John McKuen, who went on to play with the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” who played banjo, he taught me some things. I think I took one lesson. I had books I had the Pete Seeger book. I had the Earl Scruggs book and learned things and even Earl Scruggs; himself taught me how to play a song, because I happen to meet him when I was 21 or so.
Beth Accomando: So with all this love that you had for music. How did you then get kind of sidetracked into stand up and then get back to it?
Steve: I always wanted to be performer. That was really first and when I got enough material together to do a comedy act. I have I was also doing comedy magic. So at the time in, Orange County, there are these Folk, Hootenanny, Folk clubs that were springing up. So that was an opportunity to be on stage and I put everything in that I had just to gain time performing time. First I had like 10 minutes then 15 minutes and part of that was I could play a funny song. Or pretend to, a lot of my act was based on things not working like the magic act. I found that when things went bad I could get some laughs or when the jokes weren’t that funny I could get laughs. Or I don't know, you know, I have all kinds of routines with the banjo. I didn't do this but, for example, Jerry Van Dyke who is Dick's brother would play and get his finger stuck in the strings of the banjo. You know those kinds of things.
Beth Accomando: And I read also, that taking philosophy in college was something that kind of changed your outlook on…
Steve Martin: Well that was that was teaching me to question everything and I applied it to comedy. And I knew there was a certain form of comedy. Just handed down through the nightclubs, there were certain other people certainly questioning it, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and all this. But, I was really looking at it I was really trying to bust up. What we’d call that kind of Las Vegas nightclubs style, was a joke and punchline I just examined that as much as I could and try to turn it on its head. Even to the point that maybe I was parroting it.
Beth Accomando: Have you taken that approach to musical theatre questioning it and breaking it down?
Steve Martin: No I found that as I've gotten older. I found the hardest thing to do; it's kind of relatively easy to parody something. The hardest thing to do is modernizing something to do what they did as well. And that's the real challenge to get something with a solid story, with solid music. That makes you laugh and cry.
Beth Accomando: There was a second number that was performed that involves the female lead. Can you set up what that song was?
Steve Martin: Yes this is really, one of the central stories, in our story. There several stories in the story. This is a woman who is in her late thirties and she runs a, sort of a New Yorkers style, magazine but out of Asheville. And she is publishing Southern writers and it's been her dream since she was a little girl. And the other workers that she works with, who are younger, they're trying to get, it’s established early on that she's a little uptight. And they asked her to go dancing with them to at the bowling alley where all the soldiers coming home and everything is very joyful. And she refuses. She says “oh I’ll go some other night” and they say” no you never go. you never go out” she sings the song called “back in the day” then she says “back in the day I would have I would have gone with you” when she was younger she was carefree. [Music] [00:18:37] And then the story, as she sings that song, the stage transitions to when she was 16. And you see her, as she was then. The story begins to explain how she became a little morose, or quiet, and a little closed down. And you see what happened to her these in this incident. Why the fact that over the last 20 years 22 years.
Beth Accomando: You and Edie both have expressed this love and appreciation for musicals in the kind of elegance and style of the passing. But this is your first musical for both of you. Do you feel that you came at it with kind of fresh eyes, even though you appreciated all that came before, Do you feel that you kind of approached to it with a little bit of an outsider's point of view?
Steve Martin: Well, I found it that I’ve been lucky first time out because you're fairly innocent and you might do things that you wouldn't do your third time out. I have learned that lesson or something. I don't know, and you are you're just full of so much enthusiasm and joy about it. I don't know I feel very good about what we've done and it’s filled with a real artistic spirit and we haven't been beating down.
Beth Accomando: And you were in the film “Pennies from heaven” It’s a very interesting take on Musicals. And I was wondering if having done that, and appreciated the BBC series that came before that. If that had any kind of influence on the way you looked at approaching a musical?
Steve Martin: Well, “Pennies from Heaven” is a brilliant work by Dennis Potter. It's almost the inverse of a regular upbeat musical because it is so bleak. But his device, if you look over all the works of Dennis Potter, every, every one of them has some kind of brilliant device operating it. In this case, “Pennies from Heaven,” it's people lip syncing to Old thirties records. It's always a surprise I could be a man lip syncing to a female voice from the thirties. You know we are so far from that. These are not people actually singing live on stage. We have something I think very interesting story wise, in our musical it's not bland by any means, it’s actually kind of frightening. But also, I think that's what keeps people interested today too.
Beth Accomando: Of Course you can’t reveal [overlapping conversation] [00:21:49]
Steve Martin: It would ruin the play for people.
Beth Accomando: Talk a little bit about working with The Globe, and how this experience has been bringing it to the stage.
Steve Martin: Well I’ve had a long relationship with Barry Edelstein. He’s directed at least two or three of my plays. And even suggested I adapt the German play “The Underpants” which is written in the twenties as a political commentary, I guess. It worked out really well and so he contacted me, I guess, a year and a half ago that would even working on. And I said this and he said I'd like to read it. I sent it to him and he said he would like to do it, and we workshopped it several times and now we're here. The facilities here are great people here the staff so great. Incredibly professional, I doubt that will run up against this kind of talent and facilities again in the production of this play.
Beth Accomando: At the press Conference, one of the song that was done ended and then Walter Bobby came out and said “wait. Wait, a couple of the lyrics were changed. So can you talk a little bit about the changes that are going on in it and is it still something that's like in the works?
Steve Martin: In that particular case, we had added a lyric because the choreographer said I need some time to accomplish “x” can you add a lyric and Edie did. It was just that morning. So our poor, noble actress, Carmen Cusack, did the best she could, but because it was being filmed we wanted to do it again. Our lead actress is so brilliant, Carmen Cusack. She’s widely experienced. She played in, I always forget the name of it, Wicked in London. And I think this is the role that is going to show everybody exactly what she can do. Both acting and singing.
Anyway, things are being changed constantly. And I'll tell you why, because the more rehearsal you get. The more the actors get better and the tighter the show becomes. The tighter the show becomes the more you can see it as a whole. When you see it as a whole, you understand more about it and you think “oh we don't need that certain line” or “this, this line would be better if it were this line or that” or you see a story plot I’ve complete point of completely overlooked here. There's just things you can’t understand while you read it. You have to see it and you have to see it move along quickly like the audience will. That’s what you're catching as it as it progresses to a more fully formed performed play.
Beth Accomando: What do you hope audiences take away from this? What do you think the impact is?
Steve Martin: I hope that there moved, I hope that they laugh. I hope they enjoy it and walk out talking.
Beth Accomando: And is this an experience that you want to repeat again? Putting together a musical?
Steve Martin: Well, I want to rest but I really am living with this right now. I don't really have any plans for the future. I thought of maybe a smaller one maybe a one act musical might be an interesting form. But you know everything about a musical is I have learned this story. I feel confident we can write the music. I feel like the story is really crucial if you look back on all these great musical they have a really good story. And brilliant turns I mean, at the end of “Gypsy”, the end of the First Act. When I watched that thought and I'll see if I can see them in the conference that we needed a good song to end the First Act. Let’s see how about everything's coming up roses.
Beth Accomando: Considering where you started and how you first gained a lot of fame and attention. Are you surprised at where you are now? And do you feel that people have kind of accepted the way you have reinvented yourself a number of times?
Steve Martin: Well if you look at where I started I surely have reinvented myself. But it has been incremental. Both to me, and perhaps the audience. I haven’t met a lot of resistance. It’s been so sneaky. But I wouldn’t want to be doing today, what I did then. I just feel odd, but I am going off to Florida to do some shows with Marty Short. We perform and joke around kid around. So it’s still doing that I still do live shows with a band we play on stage its music and its comedy. And I like that. I love telling a joke as much as I do writing one.
Beth Accomando: Would you describe this musical as a comedy?
Steve Martin: No, I would it a drama with music. I mean with comedy a drama has some comedy. You know there are some funny characters in it. People laugh through it but throughout essentially it’s a drama.
Beth Accomando: Alright, I want to thank you so much for your time.
Steve Martin: Thank you, very much. I enjoyed it.
Beth Accomando: That was Steve Martin in an interview I did on September 2, 2014 at The Old Globe Theatre. He has just received his first Tony Award nomination for writing the book for “Bright Star” and co-writing the score with, Edie Brickell. Now I want to play my interview with George Takei from September 14th 2012, as he was beginning rehearsals for, “Allegiance” at The Old Globe Theater. Takei, is probably best known best known to people as “Sulu” in the original “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies. He’s also become a social media superstar, with nearly ten million Facebook followers. He started his Facebook page as a means of generating awareness about “Allegiance”. And social media celebrity followed. It’s not uncommon for his post to have tens of thousands of comments and or shares.
And Takei uses his popularity to help promote causes he believes in. The two most prominent are raising awareness about the Japanese American internment and Gay rights. Two issues that he sees as more closely tied then you might think. “Allegiance” a new American musical is the story of the Kimura family set against the Japanese American internment during World War II. 60 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a chance meeting forces World War II veteran, Sam Kimura, to remember his family's relocation from their California farm to the ‘Heart Mountain’ internment camp. Here’s my interview with George Takei. And sorry he only mentions “Star Trek” once because there were so many other things to talk about.
This play “Allegiance” came about kind of by happenstance. So by a chance meeting you had with the creators and tell me a little bit about how you first met them?
George Takei: Not really by happenstance, because this has been a mission in my life to raise the awareness of the interment chapter of American History. But how creative people with the show and I came together is a fortuitous and prophetic meeting. It happened in a Broadway theater, as a matter of fact twice in a row in a theater. We went to the theater one night and there were these two guys seated in front of us. One of them recognized my voice and we had a nice chit chat. And another chit chat during intermission.
The next night we went to see a Tony award winning musical titled “In the Heights”. And not in front of this time in the very same row a few seats away were the same two guys. And the seats were occupied between us so we just waved at them and then the play began. If you know the play, “In the Heights” it’s about a Puerto Rican family in New York. And near the end of the first act the father has a song called “inutil” which means useless. He has a bright daughter, shows great promise, and he wants to do so much for her. But because of the socioeconomic circumstances that they are in, he can’t do what he wants to do for his daughter.
And for some odd reason, that triggered my memory of the anguish, my father particularly, but both my parents were experiencing in the Arkansas intermittent camp during the Second World War. It touched me so that I was in tears. And of course, the intermission comes immediately after that. And the lights go blazing on and I’m quickly trying to dry my tears. When the two guys came over to chit chat again, they asked me why I was in tears, and I told them. They happened to be Lorenzo Tionie and Jay Qwo. Jay is the composer lyricist an enormously gifted musician. And Lorenzo is the writer producer. And so the conversation began during that brief intermission period. They took great interest in the subject and so after the play we went out for drinks and chatted some more. Then we decided to have dinner together the following night and from that prophetic meeting in the theater came “Allegiance”.
Beth Accomando: Now you’ve described this as your legacy project?
George Takei: I have.
Beth Accomando: And what do you mean by that?
George Takei: Well, I think our democracy is a great democracy. My father used to say both the strength and the weakness of our democracy is in the fact that it is a people's democracy. It can be as great as we people can be but it’s as fallible as people are. Our democracy faltered during the Second World War I think it's important for this nation to know and learn from where we faltered. I think we learn more from those chapters than we do from the glorious chapters that we have plenty of. And the interment story is still little known and even less understood. I’m always surprised when I go east of the Rockies and I happen to be talking about the interment my childhood experience. People who seem otherwise well informed and educated people say to me “I had no idea something like that happened in The United States”. And so I do feel that with this musical it's going to reach many, many people, and through the music of Jay Qwo, reach them by the heart, as well as the mind. Is going to make people want to discuss and then do something about it to make our democracy a truer democracy.
Beth Accomando: And what are some of your most vivid memories? Related to the internment camps…
George Takei: Well, I was a five year old when we were incarcerated. My most vivid memory I think is that day when the soldiers came marching up. Two soldiers came marching up our driveway, they had bayoneted rifles and I remember the glinting of those bayonets. Stomped up our front porch and banged on our front door and ordered our family out. But being a child, from five to eight years old, my other memories are that of a child, very innocent, lots of fun, great discoveries that I had made, and it's in retrospect. Particularly as a teenager, discussing our family with my father particularly, that I have that story in context. But my most vivid memory is that first day when the soldiers came.
Beth Accomando: This is a very serious topic but yet the play finds a lot of places for humor. Especially through your character. What is the importance do you feel of using humor to engage people when they’re watching a play like this?
George Takei: Well, it reaches the whole person and that is also the true experience. Yes, it was torturous and harrowing at times but, people still fell in love, they got married, had children. Our barrack was right across from the mess hall and my mother put us to bed but, occasionally every month and half or so the administration would allow the teenagers to put on dances, which you see in our musical. And the music came wafting over. So I relate very much to the 1940’s big band music. The ‘Andrew sisters’, oh that sound. So there was joy you can’t survive something like that with all grim suffering.
We made our joy, I remember other vivid memories. We were only to take what we could carry. So people packed only the things that they thought would absolutely need absolute essentials. Yet some women felt that the kimonos we essential enough to take with them. Festival at night all of a sudden that dark, Baron Background of black tarpaper barracks all in military uniformity would explode with Colors. The woman wearing their kimonos and we heard Japanese folk songs that they dance to in rhythm to that it was beautiful. And so unusual like a rare flower blossoming and the so you know there were joyful moments. And we would reflect that as well as a harrowing experience.
Beth Accomando: Tell me a little bit about doing this production as I understand it is still a work in progress. So are you still getting changes, script changes at the last minute?
George Takei: We're doing in every creating an original musical. It is a work in progress and that is very intensely challenging. We get re-writes that morning and we're rehearsing and performing it at night. And sometimes you know it's very tough but we tough it through. We have a group of extremely professional and very talented actor singers.
Beth Accomando: I think I saw on Facebook, You had a little pray for me I just got new pages.
George Takei: Yes, answered prayers.
Beth Accomando: And this is the first time you're doing musicals?
George Takei: Actually not, the very first musical I did was right out of college and I was a theater student at UCLA. And the one of our play writing teachers worked in concert with the music professor from the music department and created a civil rights musical. That was during the Civil Rights period, back in the late fifties early sixties. And I was cast in this a civil rights musical called “Fly Blackbird”. I was the Lone Asian amongst these students, fighting for civil rights for African-Americans and for America the American way. And I had a song [indiscernible] [00:38:28] titled the Gong song. Why in the word that we were playing with is was Oriental not Asian why is an oriental detective always accompanied by a Gong. Criticizing Hollywood stereotypes so that was my very first musical, 50 years ago. And I’ve had sprinkled in my career, what the brits call pantos, pantomime, it’s an English holiday theatrical confection that has song and dance, Vaudeville comedy, and an acrobatic sometimes. And I've sung a song or two on those as well I’ve done three pantomimes in England.
Beth Accomando: So it sounds like political activism and your art have been intertwined from the very beginning?
George Takei: That's correct; it was the Civil Rights musical. We sang at a civil rights rally where Dr. Martin Luther King was the speaker and we got a chance to meet him privately after the concert. It was an absolutely unforgettable thrill to briefly chat with him and shake his hand. This hand shook his hand.
Beth Accomando: Do you think your interest in politics stems from your father and what he taught you?
George Takei: well when I was a teenager I had these intense discussions with my father. My father felt that it was the absence of Japanese-Americans in the mainstream of American society which includes politics what was in part what contributed to the ease with which we were incarcerated and so before I was even a boat engage my father took me to the Adlai Stevenson for president headquarters and he volunteered me but also a political campaign has a lot of theatrical elements which kind of fed my inborn nature I think there's suspense there's excitement there is in a build, build, build and ecstatic elation or black tragedy.
Beth Accomando: Now you reach the point of popularity with social media and Twitter and Facebook.
George Takei: Don’t forget “Star Trek”
Beth Accomando: Yes, and “Star Trek”
George Takei: And Howard Stern.
Beth Accomando: I mean all these things have converged to make you this kind of social media superstar. Do you feel obligated to kind of use that to help Advance some of these issues that you believe in?
George Takei: Indeed, I do. Do and I do use my Facebook for some advocacy you know you want to hold your audience and you don't have to hold him with all advocacy, or all education, or all awareness-raising. You throw in some giggles and some kittens, and some humor and you can keep them coming daily. You feed them with fun and humor and occasionally you have a blog or maybe a comment or two that makes people hopefully, think and maybe take action.
Beth Accomando: Did you ever think you'd be in a position to kind of influence politics and social thinking the way you have?
George Takei: Well, you know the mission of politics is to connect with people, and connect with ideas, and to bring about social change. And I think drama is a wonderful powerful way of doing that and activism is another way of doing it. And I've been blessed with the kind of notoriety might that my profession has given me. To be to have access to your cameras or microphones and amplify or multiply my visibility and I try to use that for that purpose.
Beth Accomando: There are a lot of younger celebrities and stars out there who haven't managed to master things like Facebook and Twitter. And you come into this you know a celebrity through there and has that surprised you, is this something that kind of took you a little bit by surprise?
George Takei: It has taken me by surprise. I'm really thrown aback by all this, because to be honest, it began as a way to get the word out on “Allegiance”. And you know, we want them particularly because the subject matter, as I said, is so little known or not known at all by some parts of the country. That we needed to not only get the word out on “Allegiance” but to give people some background some understanding. Of what “Allegiance” is about. So I began with my core base which are sci-fi fans, the Nerds, and Geeks. And I thought you know, if I can get their activists too. If I can get them energized then we can get them to buy tickets. And then see the show and spread the word. But, then it continued to grow, and it really is amazing this thing called social media. It just grows and grows like Topsy and here we are I had no idea it would go past 2.5 million people. And it's really amazing. I'm still my generation and I'm absolutely astounded by the success of the Facebook has enjoyed.
Beth Accomando: Well like your character in the play Allegiance you use humor also to engage people quite well.
George Takei: Exactly, humor is the honey with which to catch the bees and then the sting.
Beth Accomando: In addition to trying to make people aware of the Japanese internment camps
George Takei: Japanese American. We weren't incarcerated by the Japanese. We were incarcerated by America, US internment camps. We had American soldiers guarding over us it was our US Constitution egregiously violated.
Beth Accomando: I stand corrected; but you also use your celebrity to also be active for gay rights as well.
George Takei: Absolutely, it's the same issue. It’s the same issue. We were incarcerated by their real barbed wire fences but the LGBT group is another group of Americans, incarcerated by the legalistic barbed wire fences. Laws that imprison them from equality, with not only the rest of the rest of the country, But you know what this to me absolutely baffling is in the case of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans we look different we look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. But the LGBT community we are literally members of our family we’re sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, in some cases and to deny equality to our own flesh and blood is to me the cruelest most inhuman and irrational Act. The same issue our inability to recognize that equality is what America is all about. “Liberty and justice for all” that's the pledge. And I learned that pledge, incarcerated behind US barbed wire fences. I could see the barbed wire fence and the century Towers right outside my schoolhouse window, and a black tar paper barrack. As I resided the words “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” which ends with “with liberty and justice for all” which includes LGBT people. They are members of our own family our own flesh and blood. How irrational? How cruel can we get?
Beth Accomando: And since you do come from that background, did you find it hard to kind of separate the notion of what America stands for and sometimes what it ends up being because of some of the people that are in politics or in the government?
George Takei: Well, as my father said our democracy is made up of fallible human beings. And he told me about the attorney general in California. Who took an oath on the Constitution of the United States, but wanted to be elected governor of this state. And he saw that the most popular issue back in the early forties, was the get rid of the Japs movement. So this attorney general who took that oath on the Constitution, ran on that issue, and won on that issue and became the governor of the state of California. And later was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower as the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court his Name is Earl Warren he was a fallible American.
Beth Accomando: What are you proud of in this play “Allegiance”?
George Takei: You know, it's hard to pinpoint one thing. Because during technical rehearsals, I was sitting in the house watching the technical part, and it's so boring time-consuming and energy draining process. But we been rehearsing in the rehearsal Hall the play and I saw that play on stage with the sets. It’s a memory play and it has that fluidity of memories and then the lights come on and the sound. You know it's hard to take one thing out. The performers are glorious but I know it's the whole theatrical experience that really makes that statement. I'm most proud of that entire statement and the final element after technical. Is that we added to the whole production is the audience. Every single night we had standing ovations. It is a glorious feeling. And you know one can understand from an actor's standpoint I can say the standing ovation. But, no it's the whole and it's knowing the message of this play and the joy as well as the profound importance statement about our democracy is what’s being shared. That’s what I'm most proud of.
Beth Accomando: Well thank you very much.
George Takei: Thank you!
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Beth Accomando: Thank you for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’ll have a podcast coming up about a first time filmmaker trying to make a film in Kenya about music, politics, and trains. And a crew call with stunt drivers. To make sure you don't miss any episodes, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. You can also check out the archives, featuring podcast on black exploitation, Mexican extreme Cinema, monsterpalooza, and the TCM classic film festival at kpbs.org/junkiepodcast. So until our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your residence Cinema Junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place