MAKING OVERTURES

A musical that rewrites history

by Rei Sasaguchi

“Pacific Overtures” isn’t one of Stephen Sondheim’s most famous musicals, but the story it tells — of the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships in July 1853 and the opening of Japan to the West — has been updated and given a new twist by a Japanese director and cast.

Playing at the New National Theatre of Tokyo until Oct. 31, “Pacific Overtures” made its Broadway debut in 1976. Based on a book by John Weidman, the musical was given an exaggerated, kabuki-style staging by director Harold Prince. Many Japanese critics regarded it as a work of pure “orientalism,” presenting an exotic Japan as pictured by the American imagination.

Interested in approaching Sondheim’s musical from a Japanese point of view, Amon Miyamoto directed a new version that was staged at the New National Theatre in October 2000, using an excellent Japanese translation by Kunihiko Hashimoto. In contrast to the lavish kabuki style used by Prince, Miyamoto adopted the highly restrained techniques of the noh theater, an approach that seemed to bring out new depths in the work. He also presented the characters with greater sympathy, bringing them vibrantly to life instead of allowing them to remain colorful caricatures. Miyamoto confides that by stripping all the superfluous aspects of the 1976 version, he was able to express more eloquently what Sondheim and Weidman had aimed to create.

This past summer, Miyamoto and the 21 members of his troupe were invited by Sondheim to present their “Pacific Overtures” at the Lincoln Center Festival 2002 in New York, July 9-13, and at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., Sept. 3-8. The production was highly acclaimed in both cities. Miyamoto and company are now celebrating their homecoming, and it is thrilling to see them perform with renewed enthusiasm.

This “Pacific Overtures” unfolds on a noh stage, surrounded by water and accessed by a hanamichi walkway. As the prologue is recited, members of the troupe (mostly male, with four actresses) appear one by one, costumed in black, and take their places on Rumi Matsui’s attractive, simple set of sliding panels and hidden rooms.

Soon the music swells for the opening number, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” which tells of the centuries-old isolation of Japan and the orderliness of Japanese society. Suddenly, we are sent back to the mid-19th century. The actors, now wearing costumes (designed by Emi Wada) resembling the traditional garb of the four classes in that society — samurai, priests, farmers and merchants — bustle about against a backdrop of folding screens depicting scenes in and around Kyoto.

This feudal world was shaken to its foundations by the arrival of the first Black Ships off the coast of Uraga, in present day Shizuoka Prefecture. Perry brings a letter from the president to be presented to the shogun — the “Pacific Overtures” that give the musical its name. The ominous appearance of the American warships is conveyed with brilliant economy by an enormous Star-Spangled Banner that unfurls across the theater ceiling.

The Tokugawa Shogunate orders Kayama (Shunji Honda), a lowly official policing Uraga, to keep the unwanted foreigners from coming ashore. With the help of Manjiro (Masaki Kosuzu), a clever fisherman with an American education, Kayama succeeds in driving away the ships — for a time. In reward, Kayama is made the magistrate of Uraga and Manjiro becomes a samurai.

The Black Ships return the following year, and this time Japan is forced to open trade — first with the United States, then with Great Britain, France, Holland and Russia. Contact with the foreign visitors soon begins to transform the two men: Kayama abandons his traditional ways in favor of the those of the foreigners, while Manjiro turns against the West and takes up the samurai’s sword. In the end, Kayama is killed by Manjiro, who has become a passionate loyalist.

The actors seem to take especial pleasure in the satirical scenes set in the emperor’s court and the shogun’s palace. (The roles of both leaders are performed by Takeharu Kunimoto, a highly talented actor who can play the shamisen superbly.) The most hilarious of all is “Chrysanthemum Tea,” in which the shogun is slowly poisoned by his mother (Haruki Sayama), who is determined to eliminate her son so there will be no one in the country to receive the American president’s letter.

Some numbers are delightful, pure and simple — one such is “Poems,” sung by Kayama and Manjiro on their way to Uraga. Others tell a more serious story. “Please Hello” is an eloquent musical expose of the ambitions underlying the civility of the Americans and Europeans, who greet the shogun with smiles and warships. Throughout, the acting is excellent, and the droll, poised movements of the actors reveal the influence of kyogen, Japan’s traditional comic theater.

“Pacific Overtures” ends with the fantastic explosion of “Next,” depicting how the Japanese plunged into modern materialism after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The final eight minutes are simply overwhelming as the actors, clad in simple black shirts and pants, move swiftly and vigorously across a fiery stage — this, perhaps, an allusion to worse trauma to come: the devastation wrought by World War II.

Though the 1976 version of “Pacific Overtures” finished with Japan’s phenomenal emergence as a great economic nation, Miyamoto’s production closes by showing how the Japanese have been struggling, economically and socially, for the past decade. The director says that he wishes to make the Japanese think seriously about themselves and about their country’s present spiritual confusion.

But the director doesn’t turn his eye only on Japan’s current troubles. Through his “Pacific Overtures,” Miyamoto says, he wishes to remind Americans of what they are still doing to aggravate the world situation by creating fear, antagonism and chaos among other nations. History, it seems, has that habit of repeating itself.