Thursday, May 11, 2017

Pacific Overtures:
Sondheim's Joy

"Mr. Sondheim, when you wrote a musical about the industrialization of Japan, how did you expect your audience to react?" 

With book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Harold Prince, Pacific Overtures opened in January 1976 and closed after just 193 performances.  Less than a year later, probably still smarting from the show's commercial failure, Mr. Sondheim heard this presumptuous question from a seventeen-year-old boy who worshiped him, me.

He sat on the apron of the stage at the Music Box Theatre to speak to me and my friends, ages 15-18, following a performance of Side by Side by Sondheim.
[Photo collage: Sondheim at left, my teacher Frank Boggs, and the Westminster Ensemble. I'm second from right.]

"I'd like to think they would feel a kind of joy," Sondheim said.  His answer surprised me, and changed the way I looked at drama and all literature.

Decades later, in his memoir Finishing the Hat, Sondheim preached three principles he tries to follow:  "Less is more... Content dictates form ... God is in the details."  But that night in 1977, Sondheim taught me a fourth principle, "The joy is in the storytelling." 

Overview of Overtures
Pacific Overtures takes its title from an American euphemism for our navy's forced entry into Japanese ports in 1853. Act One concerns the crisis at all levels of Japanese society when Commodore Matthew Perry's four warships appeared off the coast; Act Two accelerates through decades of cultural upheaval to the Present, when a chorus  celebrates Japan's commercial incursions into the West, proclaiming, "there are eight Toyota dealerships in the city of Detroit, and one-third of the bicentennial souvenirs sold in Washington, D.C. were made in Japan!"

Weidman and Sondheim tell this international story through a personal tale of friendship.  We first meet a humble samurai named Kayama at home with his wife Tamate. When the crisis hits, his fearful superiors tap him for the impossible job of telling four warships to just go away.  He takes with him a translator, Manjiro Nakahama.  Also known as John Manjiro, he's an historical figure, son of a Japanese fisherman, lost in a storm, rescued and raised by Americans, arrested as a spy when he returned to the island  (See "From Castaway to Samurai").   In Act One, Kayama and Manjiro become allies and friends; in Act Two, their paths diverge.

Director Harold Prince had planned to direct Weidman's script as a straight play, until the notion struck him to turn the story inside out.  Prince reimagined the story told by a Japanese master of traditional kabuki theatre with an interest in Broadway musicals. Weidman revised his work, and Prince engaged Sondheim, set designer Boris Aronson, and choreographer Patricia Birch.  Together they created Broadway's one and only kabuki musical. [Photo: Boris Aronson's set for the meeting of Kayama and Manjiro with the American warship.]

Too young to afford a trip to see the show myself, I got as close as I could. I walked a mile from school to the local library to read the opening night review in the New York Times by Clive Barnes, who opined that the show was "very serious ... almost inordinately ambitious." Barnes focused on inconsistencies of perspective, as if he were critiquing an essay.
I collected every review I could (see below).  I haunted Jim Salle's Record Shop in Buckhead for the cast album until Mr. Salle sighed, "I only got one copy, but I saved it for you, because you've called so damn many times!"  I bought the full piano-vocal score to get the feel of the music into my fingers.

For all that I enjoyed of the recording and the photos, I accepted the line of the reviewers.  They agreed: opening early in our bicentennial year, in the shameful aftermath of our ruinous involvement in Vietnam, Pacific Overtures resonated with its time. The show was political, meaningful, serious. That, I thought, was what made it great.

A Kind of Joy
But the joys of Pacific Overtures are in the telling. 

Reflecting on Pacific Overtures in his memoir, Sondheim describes a three-fold Japanese screen that deepened his appreciation for how "less is more."  The screen's right-most panel bore the image of a tree, one branch "snaking its way shyly" into the middle panel, leaving a third panel blank.  Looking from the left to the right "was like a sudden explosion," Sondheim writes; "it seemed to grow as I looked at it" (Finishing the Hat, 394).

That's the effect of Sondheim's opening number for Pacific Overtures.  We hear a few notes plucked on the koto, a couple phrases of a plaintive tune by a solo voice that trails off to silence. The beating of a deep-voiced drum shocks us, then subsides. Pause. While the "Reciter" declaims, "Nippon!"  and extols the "island empire," a single flute sings and chirps. Then comes "the explosion," still my favorite moment in any Sondheim score: As the Reciter tells us, "Here in July, eighteen - hundred - and - fifty - three, there is  nothing to threaten the serene and timeless cycle of our days," the full orchestra chugs in with double-basses, timpani, and brass, hitting a single block chord like a machine, propelling us into Sondheim's panoramic view of Japan at that time, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea."

At the end of the show Sondheim composed another explosion, "Next!" proclaiming the advantages of relentless commercial progress.

Three Personal Songs
Sondheim shifts focus from the panoramic to the personal in exquisite, affecting songs for Kayama, Tamate, and Manjiro.  Of eleven songs in the score, these are second, fifth, and ninth, tracing the arc of a personal story within the larger political one.

"There is No Other Way" draws us into Tamate's despair.  While Kayama girds himself for his doomed mission, we get Tamate's feelings in three panels, as it were:  Tatame does a "mournful dance," an observer sings about her, and another observer sings her thoughts.  As her disquiet grows, her thoughts turn to images of an approaching storm and birds in flight, while her outward self sings reassuringly, "I will have supper waiting."  The texture of the music at first is just voices and percussion, then flute and harp; as tension rises, the voices overlap more and more; strings add an ominous chord progression over all.

For "Poems," Kayama and Manjiro, jubilant with the success of their mission, take turns improvising haiku-like verse from sensations along their way back to Kayama's home -- "rain on the silver birch," haze, moon, wind, and birdsong. For Kayama, every image reflects his love for Tamate; Manjiro's poems praise the restless energy of America.   After each verse, one friend prompts the other, "Your turn."  That sets up my favorite moment when Manjiro's impressive effort leaves Kayama speechless: 
   Dawn brightening
   As she opens up her eyes
   But it's I who come awake.

   Your turn.

    You go.

     Your turn.
In this joyful competition, the two men bond.  The musical accompaniment, mostly a plucked ostinato to this point in the song, swells as the men's exultant voices join in harmony.  Sondheim, ever mindful of how his songs can be staged, handed Aronson and lighting director Tharon Musser ample opportunities creating the landscape in sunrise.  This emotional high point sets up Kayama's discovery that Tamate, expecting the worst, has committed ritual suicide.

In the book Sondheim and Company, author Craig Zadan quotes heavy-hitting Sondheim experts about the last of these personal songs:
Interspersed with a series of letters, the song ["A Bowler Hat"] moves almost cinematically through ten years, illustrating [Kayama's] growing affluence and Westernization. ("In a few minutes, and with the use of only a few details," Frank Rich later wrote of the song in the New York Times, "Mr. Sondheim transforms a character's trivial autobiographical chronicle into a paradigm of an entire civilization's declining values.")  "It's my favorite number," Prince reveals.  "It's just everything I would love to have happen in a musical and occasionally does: that kind of moment where in one number you can accomplish something on so many levels theatrically and emotionally.  I asked for that and Steve delivered it and it was perfect" (Zadan 217).
Sondheim's music reinforces the dramatic action -- with effects reinforced by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. A tick-tock bass and vamp emphasize the passing of time, strings play rich Western harmony akin to Ravel's valses nobles at their most wistful, and flute with koto remind us of Kayama's origins.  

In the Details
When Pacific Overtures was new, my teen-aged preference was for the comedy numbers with wall-to-wall rhymes.  A favorite example in "Chrysanthemum Tea" was the hope of the Shogun's mother that "the tea the Shogun drank will / serve to keep the Shogun tranquil."  In "Please Hello,"  I especially enjoyed seeing how Sondheim kept feeding heavily rhymed and very funny content to five Western admirals, despite the fact that these were only caricatures of their nations singing pastiches of their national musics (Sousa march, Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, Offenbach can-can...), and despite the unlikelihood that listeners would pick out the words from the dense counterpoint. The words gave each actor detail to keep his character busy. 

Other songs for Pacific Overtures illustrate historical themes through little self-contained stories.  In "Welcome to Kanagawa," a world-weary madam makes the best of circumstances when white men descend on her turf:  "With my flowers disappearing in alarm / I've been reduced to commandeering from the farm. / But with appropriate veneering, / Even green wood has its charm."  In "Four Black Dragons," a fisherman and a thief remember the terror of first seeing those alien warships.   With "Someone in a Tree," we get three personal views of international history in the making, from a guard secreted under the treaty house, from the boy who watched in a nearby tree, and from the old man who remembers being that boy. I've written elsewhere of this song:
We hear a single vamp repeated with little variation ....  Sondheim adds elements to fill in gaps of the vamp as it repeats, while each singer adds a different perspective on a slice of Japanese history.  The description may sound dry; the song feels joyful.  This, Sondheim tells us, was composed under the influence of his first exposure to Steve Reich's music.  (See Stephen and Steve: Sondheim Appreciates Reich.)
Even in his condescending review, Clive Barnes found aspects of this song "charming" and "amusing," writing how the music "sweetly embraces the ardor of youth and the surrender of age."

The penultimate song of the score is a special joy.  A reviewer at the time, writing in High Fidelity, called "Pretty Lady" a "flagrant" example of "incongruous" accompaniment for a violent action.  For me, the song illustrates all of Sondheim's principles in one.

First, content dictates form:  For a trio of British sailors who encounter a "Pretty Lady" in a garden, Sondheim composed a gentle barcarole, or "sea song."  Strings sigh down the scale while the sailors sing a lilting melody.

Then, there are the details by which Sondheim sketches the lives of these three unnamed sailors: one sings, "Pretty lady, could I hear you laugh?  / I ain't heard a lady laugh for I don't know how long," and another sings, "Pretty lady, I'm a million miles from Stepney Green...."  The lines interlace, and culminate in a lovely chord for the phrase, "Pretty please."

Then, "less is more," and what's fantastic about the song is what's missing: the young woman, who makes no sound.  She is not a "geisha girl," as the sailors suppose, and each sailor's gentle insistence becomes overwhelming in triplicate: "Pretty lady, 'ow about it? / Doncher know how long I've been without it?" Her samurai father discovers the sailors, and his violent reaction precipitates regime change and the show's headlong rush into the finale.

What's more (what's less?), this musical scene of sailors' importuning the "Pretty Lady," a heartbreaking drama, also serves as metaphor. With its counterpart "Welcome to Kanagawa," the two  songs use sexual exploitation to encompass Japan's experience of the Western empires' forced entry to Japan -- what was learned, and lost, by our "pacific overtures."

There's joy in perceiving all that Weidman, Sondheim, Prince, et. al., put into their work.  Looking back among even the most negative reviews in my scrapbook, I find the words "joy" and "delight."  Sondheim got it right.


[Photo:  Scraps I saved from 1975-6, the run of Pacific Overtures.  Top center, there's a playbill from the show's Boston tryout in November 1975, brought to me by my mentor Frank Boggs, who sat in on the cast's attempt to learn the new song "Next."  The ad from the Times makes strategic use of Clive Barnes' review; the top price for the show, incredible as this may seem today, was $13.50.]

Sondheim, Stephen. Finishing the Hat.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Company, 2nd Edition.  New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

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