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Pacific Overtures – Original Broadway Cast Recording 1976

Pacific Overtures – Original Broadway Cast Recording 1976

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Synopsis

Any time a new musical created by Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim comes along, there is one thing you can be certain of: it will be something unusual. And whether the show exhilarates you or unsettles you, it will never insult your intelligence. Their unique collaboration has redefined Broadway musical theater. Ignoring a formula approach, they find a basic idea they like and allow the content of that idea to lead them to the form. The possibilities are limited only by their own imaginations. In Company (1970) they explored personal relationships, and in Follies (1971) the territory was the past. A Little Night Music (1973) revolved around the foibles of love. With Pacific Overtures (1976) Prince and Sondheim take a look at international relationships. The characters are countries. Japan and the United States are the principal players in the show. The title phrase, Pacific Overtures, is a political euphemism coined by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853. His diary recounts the historic display of American naval power that forcibly persuaded Japan to open up trade relations, ending 250 years of complete isolation. The threatening presence of four American warships brought Japan the first jolt of a culture shock that never stopped, hurtling the “Floating Kingdom” into the 20th century at breakneck speed. That extraordinary transformation is what Pacific Overtures is all about: the price of progress. The dramatization of Perry’s expedition to Japan was John Weidman’s idea. Sitting in a Harvard lecture hall in 1966, Weidman became intrigued by the theatrical possibilities inherent in that unprecedented culture clash. A few years later, using actual historical facts, he wrote a play that Harold Prince wanted to direct and produce. But they both gradually sensed that the scope of the project needed the extra dimension of music, at which point Stephen Sondheim joined the collaboration. It was Prince’s notion to tell the story from a Japanese viewpoint, adapting (but not imitating) various techniques and conventions from the rich heritage of traditional Japanese theater. Just as the show is concerned with the clash between East and West, the theatrical styles of Pacific Overtures represent an equally comprehensive mix of the two cultures. It is a Broadway musical written by Americans, paying homage to, and informed by, the sensibilities of traditional Japan. (Though it may not seem readily apparent, Western drama has long been influenced by Oriental theater, particularly the work of Meyerhold, Brecht, and Thornton Wilder.) To fulfill his vision of “Pacific Overtures,” Prince recruited the best available talents, all of whom he had worked with previously. Hugh Wheeler provided additional material for the book; Patricia Birch devised the choreography; Boris Aronson, Florence Klotz and Tharon Musser worked their customary magic with the scenery, costumes and lighting, respectively. In the musical department, Jonathan Tunick did the orchestrations; Paul Gemignani became musical director, and Daniel Troob arranged the dance music. The entire cast of Pacific Overtures is Asian or Asian-American, and in keeping with Kabuki, tradition the female roles are played by males (except in the final contemporary scene). The most striking Kabuki convention is the use of the Reciter, played by Mako, who presides over, takes part in and comments throughout the show. He is the focal point. Other Kabuki customs utilized include a polished wooden runway called a hanamichi, extending out from the stage and going off into the left side of the audience; the use of exaggerated wigs and makeup; four “invisible” black-clad, veiled stage hands, and three on-stage musicians who punctuate and accompany the action. As the lights come up on Pacific Overtures to the strains of a Japanese folk song, the Reciter is seen kneeling in front of a boldly patterned show curtain, his head touching the floor in prayer. A stage-hand runs the curtain across the stage to reveal the company. They join the Reciter in extolling “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea, offering an introduction to the quality of life in 1853 Japan. Living safely and serenely behind their delicately painted screens, the Japanese wish only to maintain their sacred isolation. The Reciter introduces a scene at the court of the Shogun, the top warlord who rules Japan in the name of the one-year-old figurehead Emperor. The Shogun’s councillors have gathered to deal with a Japanese prisoner in Western dress, who is carried down the hanamichi in a cage. The prisoner is a fisherman named Manjiro (Sab Shimono), who was shipwrecked at age fourteen. Rescued by an American ship, he was taken to “a place called Massachusetts,” where he was educated. Now, some years later, he has returned to forewarn his countrymen of the oncoming expedition of four American warships Fearing the arrival of the barbarians, the Shogun’s chief councillor, Lord Abe (Yuki Shimoda), decides upon a plan to fend off a visit from foreigners. A samurai of little consequence named Kayama (Isao Sato) is promoted to the office of Prefect of Police of Uraga and charged with the duty of meeting the intruders. He is to venture out in a small skiff to order the warships away, informing them of the sacred decree that no foreigner may ever set foot on Japan’s holy soil. Fully aware of his slim chance for success, Kayama resigns himself to his fate, returning home to prepare for his mission and to inform his wife Tamate (Soon-Teck Oh) of his situation. During this scene at Kayama’s home two observers appear onstage to sing “There Is No Other Way.” As Tamate expresses herself in silent movement, the first observer (Alvin Ing) sings about her while the second (Ricardo Tobia) sings her words and thoughts. As the scene fades, an enormous bell descends from the flies, sending out the alarm signaling the sighting of the American ships: “Four Black Dragons.” Panic spreads through the countryside, climaxed by the materialization of Commodore Perry’s massive flagship, a menacing man-of-war, with American officers and crew members stationed on deck along side a battery of cannons. Kayama dutifully approaches the warship in his Japanese guard boat. Unimpressed, the Americans derisively inform him that the greetings and trade agreement from their President, Millard Fillmore, require someone of the highest political importance to receive them. Kayama retreats to the Shogun’s councillors to convince them that anyone dressed in regal costume could pass for a high official. Pleased with this plan, the councillors send for the imprisoned fisherman Manjiro, hoping that his experience with Americans will make him equal to the task. Kayama and Manjiro sail back out to Perry’s ship, and though Manjiro is not able to turn the Americans away, he does know how to command their attention. He is informed that Commodore Perry will send a landing party ashore in six days to formally present the treaty, with all due respect for Japanese custom. If the Shogun does not wish to cooperate, the Americans will “blow Uraga off face of earth!” The scene shifts to the bedchamber of the dissolute Shogun, who appears for the first time, surrounded by his mother, wife, companion, physician, priests, soothsayer and a pair of sumo wrestlers. In “Chrysanthemum Tea” the Shogun’s mother (Alvin Ing) leads a day-by-day countdown anticipating the American landing party, trying in vain to stimulate her son into action to face the intruders. Deciding that having no Shogun at all would be preferable to having an ineffectual one, she relieves him of his duties permanently through a small addition to his tea. “The blossom falls on the mountain. The mountain falls on the blossom. All things fall.” At the Shogun’s court the councillors have assembled to hear Kayama and Manjiro propose a further scheme to get rid of the Americans. Since the Japanese cannot compete with the American artillery, it is suggested that Perry’s landing party be received. To circumvent the problem of foreign feet on holy soil, Kayama and Manjiro have devised a plan to construct a special treaty house at Kanagawa and to cover all the sand with tatami mats. After the Americans are received and depart satisfied, the treaty house can be destroyed and the mats burned, with no barbarian feet ever having defiled sacred ground. It will be just as if the Westerners had never been there. Impressed with this plan, the councillors immediately promote Kayama to the office of Governor of Uraga and set in motion all the necessary arrangements to implement the plan. At Kayama’s request Manjiro is placed in his service. The two men happily set off on the journey back to Kayama’s home, where his wife awaits him. During the joyful walk the two exchange “Poems.” Upon arriving at home Kayama discovers that Tamate has committed suicide. Attention shifts to a hefty, garish woman (Ernest Harada) making her entrance down the hanamichi, leading four young girls. Unlike everyone else, this Japanese madam and her inexperienced charges are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Americans – “Welcome to Kanagawa.” On the appointed sixth day, with the treaty house standing and the ground well covered with mats, the Japanese welcome the American landing party. Just as the Reciter is informing us that there is no Japanese record of what transpired at that historic meeting, an old man (James Dybas) interrupts: “Pardon me. I was there.” As a child (Gedde Watanabe), the old man had spied upon the proceedings from a hidden vantage point up in a tree. The Japanese also had a warrior (Mark Hsu Syers) hidden underneath the floorboards of the treaty house ready to attack in the event of American treachery. Each delivers his version of what happened at the treaty house in “Someone in a Tree.” After the Americans leave Kanagawa and return to their ships, the Japanese complete their plan by dismantling the treaty house and burning the mats, being careful not to let the contaminated side touch the ground. The end of Act I takes the form of a traditional and triumphant Kabuki lion dance, the lion in this case embodying evil in the character of Commodore Perry (Haruki Fujimoto). Act II, which spans the time period from 1854 to the present, opens in “the spiritual heart of all Japan,” the imperial court of the Emperor in Kyoto. The Emperor (in the form of a puppet) sits on an elevated platform. The court is conducting a ceremony to formally acknowledge Lord Abe, Kayama and Manjiro as the saviors of Japan and to reward the fisherman Manjiro by elevating him to the rank of samurai. Speaking for the Emperor, a priest declaims: “The Emperor smiles upon his loyal subjects and permits them to depart – secure in the knowledge that the barbarian threat has forever been removed.” Lord Abe is separated from the court and left alone onstage. Suddenly, to the accompaniment of a distant fife, an American admiral (Alvin Ing) appears at the rear of the hanamichi and begins to march toward the stage. Armed with a plaque and official documents, he welcomes himself with “Please Hello.” Quickly following, one after another, down the hanamichi come British, Dutch, Russian, and French admirals (Ernest Harada, Patrick Kinser-Lau, Mark Hsu Syers, James Dybas) – all singing further demands. The inevitable Westernization is well under way. Things change rapidly as coastal towns are penetrated by foreign merchants. Businessmen soon come to Japan to set up factories A scene change shows Kayama and Manjiro seated separately before small tea tables. While Manjiro studies the ancient tea ceremony Kayama sings “A Bowler Hat.” Interspersed with a series of letters, the song accomplishes a cinematic time progression of ten years, illustrating Kayama’s growing affluence and Westernization. By the end of the number the two countrymen have become entirely different: Kayama, the energetic, Westernized official; Manjiro, the doggedly traditional samurai. As time passes, the presence of alien cultures becomes more disruptive. Three British sailors (Timm Fujii, Patrick Kinser-Lau, Mark Hsu Syers), out for a good time, happen to peer over a wall into a garden where a beautiful girl is picking flowers. Supposing that she might be “one of them geisha girls,” the three sailors hop over the wall and politely attempt to buy her favors – “Pretty Lady.” Finally, unable to cope, the girl summons her father, who angrily draws his sword, killing one of the sailors while the other two escape. During a nighttime journey, accompanied by a retinue of guards and servants, Lord Abe and Kayama discuss the political ramifications of the murder of the British sailor. Suddenly they are ambushed by a raiding party of samurai sent by the Lords of the South, strong advocates of a movement to save Japan by expelling the barbarians and restoring political power to the Emperor A violent battle ensues during which Lord Abe is assassinated. All those involved in the fighting, except for Kayama and one dissident samurai, are either struck down or flee. Confronting the lone conspirator, Kayama is staggered by the realization that the man ready to kill him is Manjiro, who challenges: “Will you draw your sword as a fellow samurai or shall I cut you down like the Western dog you have become?” They fight. Kayama’s killed. The Lords of the South enter carrying the Emperor (now a life-size puppet). In the name of the Emperor, Manjiro’s victory is hailed by the lords. But they are cut short by the Emperor, who abruptly comes to life, dropping his mask to stand and pronounce that from this point forward he shall speak for himself. Discarding his sacred robes, he emerges in a regal Western-style military uniform. He proclaims that, in the name of progress, the Japanese people must renounce their ancient ways and devote themselves to arriving at the day “when the Western powers will acknowledge us as their undisputed equals.” With this resolution, the onstage scene is catapulted into 1976, with the entire company in contemporary Western dress frenetically singing, dancing and celebrating Japan’s amazing progress – “Next.” “There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here,” declares the Reciter. “But that was long ago. A hundred and twenty years. Welcome to Japan.”

– William H. Evans

Credits

Reciter: Mako Abe, First Councilor: Yuki Shimoda Manjiro: Sab Shimono Second Councilor: James Dybas Shogun’s Mother: Alvin Ing Third Councilor: Freddy Mao Kayama: Isao Sato Tamate (Kayama’s Wife) / Samurai / Storyteller / Swordsman: Soon-teck Oh Samurai: Ernest Abuba, Mark Hsu Syers Servant: Haruki Fujimoto Observers: Alvin Ing, Ricardo Tobia Fisherman: Jae Woo Lee Merchant: Alvin Ing Son: Timm Fujii Grandmother: Conrad Yama Thief: Mark Hsu Syers Adams: Ernest Abuba Williams: Larry Hama Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry: Haruki Fujimoto Shogun’s Wife: Freda Foh Shen Physician: Ernest Harada Priests: Timm Fujii, Gedde Watanabe Soothsayer: Mark Hsu Syers Sumo Wrestlers: Conrad Yama, Jae Woo Lee Shogun’s Companion: Patrick Kinser-lau Shogun: Mako Madam: Ernest Harada Girls: Timm Fujii, Patrick Kinser-lau, Gedde Watanabe, Leslie Watanabe Old Man: James Dybas Boy: Gedde Watanabe Warrior: Mark Hsu Syers Imperial Priest: Tom Matsusaka Nobles: Ernest Abuba, Timm Fujii American Admiral: Alvin Ing British Admiral: Ernest Harada Dutch Admiral: Patrick Kinser-lau Russian Admiral: Mark Hsu Syers French Admiral: James Dybas Lords of the South: Larry Hama, Jae Woo Lee Jonathan Goble: Mako Japanese Merchant: Conrad Yama Samurai’s Daughter: Freddy Mao British sailors: Timm Fujii, Patrick Kinser-lau, Mark Hsu Syers Musician: Joey Ginza Proscenium Servants, Sailors, Townspeople: Susan Kikuchi, Diane Lam, Kim Miyori, Freda Foh Shen, Kenneth S. Eiland, Timm Hujii, Joey Ginza, Patrick Kinser-lau, Tony Marinyo, Kevio Maung, Dingo Secretario, Mark Hsu Syers, Ricardo Tobia, Gedde Watanabe, Leslie Watanabe. Musicians: Fusako Yoshida (Shamishen), Genji Ito (Percussion).