George Takei’s Road From ‘Star Trek’ to Broadway

August 3rd, 2015

Pia Catton, Wall Street Journal
August 2, 2015

Former “Star Trek” cast member George Takei will make his Broadway debut this fall in “Allegiance,” a new musical inspired by his family’s internment as Japanese-Americans during World War II.

That alone makes this a show going where no musical has gone before.

But on the business side, too, producer Lorenzo Thione is building the audience by way of innovative strategies rooted in his entrepreneurial tech career and in social media.

On Monday, “Allegiance” will announce its partnership with Facebook for the exclusive launch of a 10-part documentary series about creating the show, shot by filmmaker Greg Vander Veer.

The 10-minute episodes go behind the scenes, starting from when the creative team learns that Broadway’s Longacre Theatre is available up through rehearsals and internal debates. Footage for about half the series is shot; among the planned episodes is one about opening night, Nov. 8, which will include the cast’s reaction to reviews.

As a first-time lead producer, Mr. Thione liked the idea of opening up the process, telling his team: “Let’s put out content about everything that has happened.”

Mr. Thione has reason to trust in technology. In 2005, he founded Powerset, a natural-language search engine. Two years later, Microsoft Corp. bought it.

Since starting work on “Allegiance” some years ago, the producer realized viral content of every sort—from Grumpy Cat pictures to social-activism videos—could serve the show by raising the profile of the 78-year-old star, Mr. Takei.

Today, the actor’s good-natured, grandfatherly posts have amassed 1.7 million Twitter followers and 8.8 million Facebook likes.

It wasn’t an accident.

“We did that for the purpose of ‘Allegiance,’ ” said Mr. Thione, who hoped the virtual following would support a musical about World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans—hardly a standard subject for Broadway.

“Allegiance” has its origins in 2008, when Mr. Thione and his business partner, Jay Kuo, coincidentally met Mr. Takei and his husband, Brad, on two consecutive nights at the theater.

On the second night, at intermission of “In the Heights,” the group had an emotional discussion about the song “Inútil,” a father’s lament at feeling “useless” when he can’t afford his daughter’s college tuition.

“I was pouring copious tears,” said Mr. Takei, who shared that he was reminded of conversations with his father about their family’s four-year ordeal in internment camps in Arkansas and northern California.

“He told me how useless he felt,” Mr. Takei said. “What was going to be his children’s future?”

Messrs. Thione and Kuo were moved and felt there might be way to tell the family’s story in music. Mr. Kuo, a composer and lyricist, wrote a song and floated the idea of a full-fledged show to Mr. Takei, who embraced the opportunity.

As the early work of the show accelerated—workshops, readings and fundraising—Mr. Thione quit Microsoft in 2010 to focus on “Allegiance.”

And then reality set in.

“People I talked to early on came to it with ‘I don’t know if it is commercial,’ ” he said. “The challenge from day one was, how do we create an audience? I said, ‘We have to make George into a mainstream character.’ ”

Mr. Takei’s online activity then was mainly on his website. “I was writing a monthly blog, essentially for my ‘Star Trek’ fans,” he said. “I was doing conventions. And I would talk about them.”

Messrs. Thione and Kuo found him a new gear. “We showed him how to use Twitter,” said Mr. Thione. “We knew when you should post and [which] hashtags to use.”

Mr. Takei enjoyed it, experimenting with light, funny material, as well as serious posts about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and relief efforts after Japan’s tsunami.

“We started growing the audience,” Mr. Takei said. “When it got big enough, I started sharing that we are developing a musical.”

At first, said Mr. Takei, he and Brad were doing most of the posting themselves. But as his online presence and following grew, assistants were brought in to help cull items that people send to Mr. Takei, that he then would comment on.

The effort was so successful that in 2013, Mr. Thione launched a content-management firm in Manhattan called The Social Edge, which helps communities and individuals widen their audiences.

Meanwhile, “Allegiance” was stalled. The show had a successful fall 2012 run at San Diego’s Old Globe, where its 52 performances set box-office records, according to the theater’s spokeswoman.

Still, Broadway wasn’t opening up. “We couldn’t get a theater,” said Mr. Thione, who found theater owners doubting the show’s audience appeal.

To prove otherwise, he offered a “Priority Access Pass” to Mr. Takei’s following, which at the time was about 7 million likes on Facebook; the show had about 500,000. The $5 pass gave users early access to Broadway tickets and a download of the cast recording.

“All we wanted was a good sense of what demand could be,” said Mr. Thione. About 20,000 people chipped in—for a show lacking dates or a theater.

Last December, “Allegiance” landed a theater and tickets went on sale in May. Within the first week, Mr. Thione said an encouraging percentage of the 20,000 pass holders bought tickets: “We sold enough to feel it really worked.”

Now, with about 15 major investors, the show is capitalized at $13 million and will begin Broadway rehearsals in August.

And Mr. Takei looks beyond his status as social-media phenomenon.

“Broadway needs the high-tech industry’s innovation,” he said, adding that their work created more than an audience: “We built a community.” ♦