PACIFIC OVERTURES: Sondheim at His Most Daring

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He started challenging audiences 60 years ago by writing lyrics that would be sung by street gangs. Horrendous mothers, crooked officials, despondent spouses, serial killers and assassins followed, far more often than not to his own music.

Stephen Sondheim has always been in the business of astonishing theatergoers.

And yet, in one way, his most daring musical is PACIFIC OVERTURES, despite its only touching upon some of those doleful subjects. On its mind was a larger issue: How the West Won Japan — and How Japan Won the West.

This was Sondheim’s fourth of five musicals that he brought to Broadway in the ‘70s. COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC preceded it and SWEENEY TODD followed. They all won Tonys for Best Score; PACIFIC OVERTURES didn’t.

And yet, these 11 songs certainly deserved the prize, not only because they’re terrific but also for what they achieved under the most arduous of musical circumstances.

PACIFIC OVERTURES lost to A CHORUS LINE and probably got fewer votes than CHICAGO, too. However, Marvin Hamlisch was mirroring contemporary sounds and John Kander was echoing The Roaring ‘20s and vaudeville. Sondheim had to take on thoroughly un-Western Japanese music and instruments — Can you say “sho,” “shamisen” and “shakuhachi?” — that were unknown on Broadway and had to make them sound “right” for a musical. Only the greatest composer-lyricist could have conquered this task, and the greatest one indeed did.

Although PACIFIC OVERTURES succeeded on its own terms, it didn’t do well with the public. The Winter Garden saw many sparse audiences during the six-month run – the shortest of the five ‘70s Sondheim musicals.

In retrospect, that’s no surprise. Only the most educated of musicologists could say “Oh, I see what Sondheim’s doing!

Look at how he’s taking one chord and making tiny variations on it! Note that change of rhythm! Ah, those are Japanese scales, intonations and minor pentatonics!”

What’s more, aside from a few tender moments between a husband and his wife, PACIFIC OVERTURES offers no love story, which has traditionally been a vital ingredient in 99 and 44/100ths percent of Broadway musicals. It’s a pretty emotionless show.

Never look to tradition where Sondheim is concerned. Thus, PACIFIC OVERTURES is an exception that ignores the rule.

What was on Sondheim mind – which he inherited from John Weidman’s unproduced play and subsequent libretto — is that early 19th century Japan had been experiencing total isolation from the rest of the world for more than 200 years. More to the point, it was content to have matters stay that way.

It couldn’t. Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States suddenly showed up on Japanese shores in 1853.

Funny; there’s that famous statement about FIDDLER ON THE ROOF where a producer in Tokyo expressed astonishment that the show could succeed in America because “it’s so Japanese.” Conversely, PACIFIC OVERTURES reminds us of a lyric in FIDDLER, when Tevye questions his permissiveness:

“What’s happening to tradition? One little time I pulled out a thread, and where has it led?”

For indeed, allowing the Americans’ “pacific” visit to Japan was the unraveling of one little thread of policy that later brought the British, Dutch, Russian and French a-calling. And then what happened?

In case you don’t know, take a look at John Doyle’s effective production of PACIFIC OVERTURES now at Classic Stage Company. Rob Berman’s conducts the opening number (“The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”) in a slower tempo than the original had under Paul Gemignani, which makes sense: Japan back then was quite tranquil.

“The Reciter” – read Narrator – is played by George Takei, who does give the musical some emotion, for he whispers out the libretto as if he’s narrating a mystery story. Takei also shows the then-prevailing attitude of regarding foreign visitors as we regard roaches. Takei demonstrates how The Reciter would love a version of a roach motel so that the Americans could check in but not check out.
He’s not the only one. Thom Sesma spits out the word “America!” with the same vitriol that The Sharks did in West Side Story. Manjiro initially disagrees, lording his knowledge of the U.S. of A. over Japanese lords as if he were a Harvard graduate. “It is not the Americans who are the barbarians! It is us!” he says – which Orville Mendoza cries out with a brass-tacks finality. See, however, if he keeps to that belief.

Steven Eng is Kayama, who’s made prefect of police because those in power need an expendable patsy to go out and see what Perry wants. Megan Masako Haley portrays his wife, whose resolute face shows how she is prepared for the worst or the inevitable, whichever comes first.

Ann Harada is the madam with a heart of gold, so nice to her geisha girls who provide her with a fine living — “for Kanagawa,” Harada has her concede. The madam knows that anywhere else she wouldn’t be doing as well or considered as much of a success.

Moving the action forward in a song is often a musical theater goal; Sondheim achieved this subtly (and admirably) in “A Bowler Hat” in which Kayama goes from exploring foreign culture to proudly embracing it. He also takes time to mock his countrymen who haven’t. The song also reminds us how fast styles change and what we cherished years ago we may now regard as foolish.

That’s not true of PACIFIC OVERTURES (although the word “détente” doesn’t mean as much today as it did in 1976). Still, the masterwork says that we can all learn from each other and that in some ways Westernization was “the best thing that ever could have happened,” a lyric that would come up in a later Sondheim musical but one that’s pretty much stated here.

True, bad will come with the good. Didn’t Hal Prince, producer of FIDDLER, CABARET and COMPANY, also sponsor A SWIM IN THE SEA and direct SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS? Mistakes happen. But investigating other cultures and borrowing what’s best about them is more advantageous than just floating in the middle of the sea. And really — isn’t hara-kiri often an overreaction?

On the other hand, those who know PACIFIC OVERTURES and admire the extraordinary “Chrysanthemum Tea” might want to commit hara-kiri once they hear that Doyle has dropped it. Frankly, there was no need to excise this extraordinary piece of writing. (“It’s an herb that’s superb for disturbances at sea” is just one of its magnificent triple rhymes.) Nevertheless, one must admit that PACIFIC OVERTURES has so many assets that even those who love the song might be so swept up in the blissful 90 minutes that they’ll only later realize that they didn’t hear it.

At least “Someone in a Tree” — a musical scene that offers a type of Rashomon – is still intact. Now Sesma, playing The Old Man who recalls being on a branch and seeing the Japanese-American negotiations, shows his confusion in a wonderful way. He quickly pats the top of his head four times as if to jump-start his brain to remember what he’d witnessed.

Unlike CHICAGO, which won no Tonys at all, PACIFIC OVERTURES was able to cop two: Best Scenic Design and Best Costume Design. The CSC production offers virtually no scenery; the 13th Street theater has been reconfigured to resemble a football stadium: stands are on both sides of not a gridiron, but a runway (or, as the Japanese call it, a hanamichi).

There’s even less in terms of costumes, which aren’t much more than street clothes (with the exception of tabi socks – the Japanese ones that demarcate the big toe). Actually, the dearth of costumes almost makes the performance come across as a staged reading where the actors have rehearsed so many times that they’ve now been able to discard their scripts.

Sure, we’d all like to see Boris Aronson’s sets and Florence Klotz’s costumes replicated. Their absence prompted one of my readers to recently complain “If that’s the way they’re going to do it – no sets, no costumes, no orchestra, not enough performers – then they shouldn’t do it at all.”

No, we aren’t offered enough productions of PACIFIC OVERTURES, and as long as we’re given one that gives us most of Sondheim’s score, Weidman’s book, fine performances and swift direction, we must be grateful for what we get.