WELCOME TO PACIFIC OVERTURES By Peter Filichia
Devoted musical theater aficionados know that the nine-performance ANYONE CAN WHISTLE was Stephen Sondheim’s shortest-running show.
They can also tell you that MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, despite almost doubling that run, was the second shortest.
Their respective weak one-week and two-week stays have made Broadway mavens easily recall them. But few can immediately tell you the name of Sondheim’s third shortest-running Broadway musical.
THE FROGS, you say. Well, yes, at 92 performances, it would seem to qualify. But that was a Lincoln Center, not-for-profit limited run. We’re talking about a production that was financed commercially, was always meant to have an open run, and was geared to make money for investors.
It’s PACIFIC OVERTURES, in fact, which opened 47 years ago last week. That it did substantially better than the other two – 193 performances in a six-month run – is miraculous, for it was far less likely than even the non-conformist WHISTLE or the show-biz-insular MERRILY to have become a commercial hit.
Both of those were set in America in which theatergoers lived or had lived. PACIFIC OVERTURES instead started out in 1853 Japan, where its citizens adhered to customs that weren’t in the wheelhouse of Broadway audiences. Moments into the opening number – “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” – many in the audience may well have been at sea.
Not that Sondheim hadn’t done his work extraordinarily well; he’d established through The Reciter that in Japan “we paint screens” and “plant rice” while in other parts of the world “machines are rumbling,” “ideas are growing” and – most tellingly – “women being praised.” To that, The Reciter and the all-male chorus behind him insisted “Not here! Here, we trade bows” out of respect that each person has for the other.
The Japanese don’t feel it’s sad to be all alone in the world. They’re very happy to be isolated, and in fact insist upon it. As a result, they’re flummoxed when Commodore Matthew Perry’s warships from the United States show up on their shores. A fisherman assumed that they’re “Four Black Dragons” while a Thief assumes they’re four volcanoes. Given that they’d never seen anything like them, their mistakes are understandable.
So, what will The Shogun do with the Americans so nearby? Apparently, nothing – although his mother sees the need for some action. In the hellishly clever “Chrysanthemum Tea,” she starts out delivering said beverage in one of Sondheim’s best triple rhymes: “It’s an herb that’s superb for disturbances at sea.”
“If the tea The Shogun drank will serve to keep The Shogun tranquil,” she demurs, although we know she wants him to be anything but noncommittal. Who’ll take action if he won’t? Why, she will, as she engages in filicide courtesy of poison. “When The Shogun is weak,” she sings unapologetically, “the tea must be strong.”
The Japanese want no part of the Americans – with one notable exception. The prostitutes are quick to say, “Welcome to Kanagawa.” But wait! Their Madam sings that they’ll offer, “Music and food for 20 yen … or even ten.” That they don’t mention sex suggests that they’re geisha girls, who will dispense tender loving care and nothing else.
(Musical theater fans have been speculating about these women’s’ correct occupation since the Boston tryout.)
So, what happened when the Americans came on shore and conferred with the Japanese in the Treaty House? “There is no authentic Japanese account,” admits The Reciter, but the “Someone in a Tree” could somewhat see what was happening while someone underneath the floorboards could semi-hear what was being said.
Fans repeatedly asked Sondheim what song was the favorite of the hundreds that he had written. One time he answered, “Someone in a Tree,” and, my, did fans pay more attention to it then! However, he’d later say that he just happened to mention that one, and it wasn’t necessarily so. That said, isn’t it interesting that his first impulse was to mention a song from PACIFIC OVERTURES?
This musical had to be his hardest assignment. While writing the first act, he chose to avoid the traditional pentatonic scale. (I’ll wait until you finish Googling.) Equally arcane was the orchestra’s including such instruments as the shamisen and shakuhachi. (I’ll again wait until you finish Googling.) Needless to say, those were nowhere to be found in the hands of the musicians who played SARATOGA or SHENANDOAH.
But authenticity was all-important to Sondheim. When Richard Rodgers began composing THE KING AND I, he insisted that the chorus girls would not come dancing on stage and “singing ‘ching-a-ling-a-ling’ with their fingers in the air.” And yet, Rodgers turned out a hit-laden score that was Broadway-centric.
Sondheim’s work for PACIFIC OVERTURES most assuredly was not. By the time the show ended with “Next!” many theatergoers were probably uttering “Next!” as well, looking forward to a future show with laffs and traditional melodies.
That famous “There’s not a tune you can hum” charge that had been levied against Sondheim for 14 solid years once again was heard in and around the Winter Garden – well, at least until the beautiful “Pretty Lady” arrived in the second act. One reason for the more accessible music in the second act is that the show had Japan increasingly open itself to join the international community. “Please Hello,” the Act Two opener, showed visitors from other lands singing in their own countries’ distinctive styles.
One of the score’s most pungent songs is “A Bowler Hat.” Throughout the show we’ve been following Kayama, the Prefect of Police, and Manjiro, the angler who was lost at sea, rescued by Americans, and upon his return, was sentenced to death simply for being in America. Now we hear from Kayama, who has embraced foreign culture. (“I read Spinoza every day. Formidable!”) However, we don’t hear a peep out of Manjiro, who’s silently immersed in traditional Japanese prayer. Some expand their horizons, and some are content not to.
That’s true of critics and theatergoers, too. So, looking back on it, the most atypical PACIFIC OVERTURES had to be the greatest labor of love for Sondheim and his director-producer Hal Prince after they’d decided to adapt John Weidman’s unproduced play. Of all the musicals that Sondheim and Prince did together or separately, only SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE rivals PACIFIC OVERTURES as the most uncommercial – and SUNDAY ran more than three times as long.
So how could such a maverick musical even manage to stay around for a half-year? The early 1970s were Sondheim’s heyday; after COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, enough of an audience couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next.
Perhaps – and only perhaps – because this show and the subsequent SWEENEY were not particularly amenable to audiences, Sondheim may have lost theatergoers for his next one: MERRILY.
Still, PACIFIC OVERTURES has amassed a large cult audience. These theatergoers and cast album collectors are grateful that Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince were as courageous as Commodore Matthew Perry in daring to venture into uncharted waters.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.