When a musical’s first line of dialogue includes the all-too-familiar question “What’s the weather like up there?” we can be pardoned for thinking we might be in for a rough time of it.
We are with Sayonara, the dull musical adaptation of James Michener’s 1954 novel that spawned a popular 1957 film. Alas, the musical hasn’t much improved since I saw it at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 1987 and Houston’s Theatre under the Stars in 1993.
It’s had Broadway ambitions for more than a third of a century. Now with the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre staging it at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd and Ninth Avenue, this will be the closest that the wan musical ever gets to The Great White Way.
That synonym for Broadway isn’t irrelevant to the matters at hand, for the military brass stationed in Japan in 1952 want Their Great White Way of Life maintained. All officers and enlisted men are not to “fraternize,” to use the euphemism of choice, with any Japanese women.
But as The Fantasticks has taught us, “Never say no” – for those barred from any activity will automatically want to do it. So Private Joe Kelly is about to marry Katsumi and Captain Mike Bailey is seriously dating Fumiko, all to the consternation of Major Lloyd “Ace” Grover.
As the son of a four-star general, Lloyd’s life has been mapped out for him since day one. He’s expected to become a general before he’s 35, by which point he’ll have been married for years to Eileen Webster, the daughter of a general. But there’s some nagging problem that keeps Lloyd from committing to Eileen, one on which he can’t quite put his finger.
Not that Michener or screenwriter Paul Osborn would have dared suggest it in the Eisenhower era, but Lloyd may well be gay. When he sees a bevy of Japanese beauties from the famed all-female Takarazuka Revue theater troupe, the woman who catches his eye is the one who’s dressed as a man (for she plays male roles with the troupe).
She’s Hana-Ogi, and after Lloyd sees her perform in male drag, he moonily says “I don’t think there’s anyone like her.” What, he can tell this after only observing her from afar in an artificial situation?
Hana-ogi won’t have anything to do with him because Americans killed her father and brother in World War II. “Well, I didn’t,” Lloyd haughtily insists. Yes, but his blithely brushing off her feelings doesn’t speak well of him. Even “Hey, they started the war” would be a better response.
Eventually Hana-ogi comes around and Lloyd is saying the less-than-inspired “Then you came into my life and everything changed.” They’re supposedly in love as Act One ends, and soon after Act Two begins, Hana-ogi is saying “My heart is so full of love for you.” Apparently a great deal happened during intermission.
The Takarazuka brass is as hardline as the American military; it doesn’t want its women to fraternize with Americans, either. That makes for good conflict. And certainly the theme of prejudice is, sadly enough, still relevant more than six decades after Michener tackled it.
South Pacific, also based on a Michener work, killed off Lieutenant Cable rather than deal with the ramifications of a Philadelphia Main Liner’s marrying a Polynesian. Sayonara ups the ante: Joe and Katsumi do marry, but then can’t avoid the intense obstacles that accompany their union. The results for all these characters are equally tragic, although the way events play out are quite different.
But given that we hear that 10,000 G.I.s have married Japanese women, we need to know why. Eileen’s mother blatantly believes that “Our American boys are being tricked into marriage by these Japanese girls,” but there’s no evidence of that. Given the indulgent smile that Captain Bailey gives when Fumiko refers to Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-tasket, a tisket” (sic), we may well be dealing with men who need to feel superior and choose docile, demure Japanese women to facilitate that. Later Joe even admits “Back home, I was just a punk.” Being the unquestioned leader in a marriage — especially one in which a woman wants to become more American — makes him feel more powerful.
Is this all that led Joe and Katsumi or Mike and Fumiko to fall in supposed love? How well do these couples really know each other? The audience isn’t so much asked to sanction a marriage between American and Japanese lovers, but between people who seem to be virtual strangers. They may well have a bond of which we’re unaware, but bookwriter William Luce and lyricist Hy Gilbert should have given us good reasons why we should root for them. Physical, chemical reactions are not enough. We need conversations and songs that prove that each couple consists of soulmates.
Luce and Gilbert have their chance with the Lloyd-Hana-ogi romance. They don’t do any better than Michener or Osborn did in convincing us that these two people should spend their lives together. All they offer is the hoariest reason found in many a lackluster musical: Love at First Sight. Yes, that happens in West Side Story, but Tony and Maria are kids; both Lloyd and Hana-ogi are old enough to know better.
With General Webster stressing to Lloyd “duty; honor; country,” we have that other familiar musical theater go-to plot: Love vs. Career. Lloyd sings a soliloquy about the dilemma, although Rodgers and Hammerstein’s achievement with that form intimidates Gilbert and composer George Fischoff from calling their work “Soliloquy.” They instead chose “Reflections,” which sounds much weaker. So are Gilbert’s lyrics, which offer such platitudes as “To hold her close to me and never let her go.”
And how deep is Lloyd’s love? When Katsumi considers having her eyes “corrected” to an Occidental look, Hana-ogi directly asks him “You want me to look American? You ashamed of my Japanese face? Want me to cut eyes?” He doesn’t answer a single one of those three questions. The implication is that his answer is “Yes” to all three.
Fischoff’s music makes a mild impression, but he did save his best song — “Where You Go” – for last. Morgan McCann as Lloyd and Ya Han Chang as Hana-ogi do well by it, but in the rest of the show they’re never very compelling.
For that matter, the entire cast seems less than first-rate. Less than second-rate is Edward Tolve’s Joe. Red Buttons won an Oscar for the role, to which he brought gravitas. Under Tina Chang’s direction, Tolve plays Joe too much as a happy-go-lucky glad-hand; he comes across as stupid for not seeing the obstacles in his future. We can’t sympathize with such a lightweight.
With one character, Chang goes for an especially cheap laugh. Although the consul who married Kelly and Katsumi in the film was a normal human being, Chang has Thomas Bevan play this one as gawky and silly. That takes our mind off the drama of what’s to come.
But first there’s a marriage ceremony. Have you ever seen one on a musical stage that has ever interested you? True, The Sound of Music has one and it certainly hasn’t impeded its success, but even there (as well as in Shenandoah and The Gay Life), they’re bores to watch. At least Luce and Gilbert decided to end the musical on a less unrealistically optimistic note than Osborn chose for the 1957 film.
Was the July 7 audience with Sayonara? I counted five second act songs in a row that didn’t a single handclap of applause. Granted, Chang was somewhat responsible; she doesn’t always know how to put a button on a number to prompt audience applause. But when theatergoers truly want to clap, nothing will stop them from doing so. The implication is that the audience wanted to say “Sayonara” to Sayonara long before the final curtain.