Steven Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures

Theatre Review


Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Fall 2004 Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

When the original production of Pacific Overtures opened on Broadway in 1976, it marked the fourth collaboration between composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and producer/director Harold Prince.  The team had challenged the notions of what a Broadway musical could be by dealing with such unconventional subject matter as the frustrations of marriage (Company), illusion and the fallacies of the American dream (Follies) and the fickleness of romantic relationships (A Little Night Music).  No one was prepared, however, for the bold theatrical experiment that Pacific Overtures presented its audience.  The show not only dealt with an academic subject – the opening of Japan to foreigners and its subsequent emergence as a world power – but it told its story from the Japanese point of view by approximating the style of theatre known as kabuki.  The result was an ambitious and admirable failure.  After opening to mixed to negative reviews, Pacific Overtures succumbed to its poor box office performance and closed within six months.

Amon Miyamoto’s new production of Pacific Overtures is based on one that he directed at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in 2000 (the production briefly toured the US in the summer of 2002).  This marks the first Broadway revival of the show (as well as the first Broadway show to be directed by a Japanese person) and, like the original, is entirely cast with Asian-American actors.  Miyamoto dispenses with Harold Prince’s elaborate kabuki conception, which featured white make-up, outsized performances, and visually
stunning scenery, and strips the show down to its bare essentials.   (For an interesting comparison, you can watch the original on video at the Museum of Television and Radio).  Rumi Matsui’s scenic design is made of a simple wooden floor and floating panels.  A small pool of water surrounds the stage on three sides, which establishes a divide between the isolated “floating kingdom” and the outside world.  When Commodore Perry’s crew makes its appearance, they enter from the central aisle of the theatre and cross a bridge onto the stage, forever altering Japan’s solitary existence.  This basic conceit works well and effectively dramatizes the shock that accompanied Perry’s landing.  But Miyamoto’s intimate staging unfortunately brings the main story into focus and the weakness of that story is Pacific Overtures’s ultimate flaw.  While there is much to admire in Stephen Sondheim’s score, John Weidman’s libretto (with additional material by Hugh Wheeler) is overtly didactic and lacks sufficient drama to make the show emotionally engaging.

The gradual effects of Western imperialism and the opening of Japan are revealed through the two central characters of Manjiro (Paolo Montalban) and Kayama (Michael Lee), a samurai.  As Japan becomes increasingly Westernized, Manjiro retreats into the traditionalism of feudal Japan while Kayama sheds his traditional garb and joins the march of progress.   This story is played against the historical backdrop of pivotal events largely told in extended musical sequences – the first appearance of Perry’s fleet (“Four
Black Dragons”), the signing of a treaty largely favorable to the United States (“Someone in a Tree”), the commercial penetration of Japan by other foreign nations (“Please, Hello”), and the eventual assertiveness of Japan on the world stage (“Next”).  Acting as both a narrator and commentator on the action is the Recitor, expertly played by B.D. Wong.   The relationship between Manjiro and Kayama is meant to personalize the dramatic turn of events that are engulfing them but the characters are too stilted and one-dimensional to

effectively engage the audience.  Upon realizing that his beloved feudal Japan is gone forever, Manjiro breaks down at the end of the show.  Montalban does his best at conveying his character’s anguish but he cannot overcome the weakness of Weidman’s script, which hasn’t developed the character very well.  Kayama’s acceptance of Japan’s transformation is similarly unsatisfying.  This is especially troublesome in Kayama’s case, as the character is the more interesting one – he begins the play as a minor government official and, through Western diplomatic maneuvering, attains a level of power.

The epic historical events provide the backbone of the story and they unfold mainly through Sondheim’s long musical sequences. Sondheim condemns the imperialism of the United States and the other Western nations (France, Russia, Holland, England) with such sardonic lyrics as “We don’t forsee that you will be the least bit argumentative/so please ignore the man-of-war we brought as a preventative”.  But the show is not a simplistic anti-Western creed; it more complicated than that.  Implicated alongside the West are
those Japanese who conspire against their own country, such as Kayama and the Shogun’s Mother, who sings “the tea the Shogun drank will/Serve to keep the Shogun tranquil” as she poisons her son. The musical also seriously examines the collision of two disparate cultures.  The song “Pretty Lady” is about three English sailors who mistake a young woman for one of the geisha they’ve heard so much about.  She sees their advances as threatening while they don’t understand why she wants to run away – “Pretty lady with a flower/Give a lonely sailor half an hour/Pretty lady, can you understand a word I say?/Don’t go away.”  The scene ends in tragedy as the girl’s father kills the three sailors.

Sondheim’s music imitates Eastern music by using pentatonic scales, limited harmony (Japanese music does not use any harmony), and Japanese percussion and flutes among the Western instruments.  In this way, the score is representative as the show as a whole by being a fusion of two different cultures.  As the show progresses, the score gradually becomes more and more Western sounding until the finale. The song “Next”, which encompasses the next 150 years as Japan industrializes and buries its feudal past forever, is
completely Western in orchestration and sound.  Miyamoto has incorporated new dances into the number that detail Japan’s conquest of Korea and China, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the reemergence of Japan as a technological innovator and financial power.  The number, like much of the show, is interesting from an historical and political perspective.  But despite the admirable performers on stage and Miyamoto’s slick and minimalist direction, this production can’t escape the fact that  Pacific Overtures plays like an academic treatise.  It provides much cerebral stimulation but, as an evening of dramatic theatre, it leaves much to be desired.

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