Vol. 4, No. 4, Spring 1998
Thirty minutes from Manhattan, a major all-star production of the legendary Follies
News & Notes
The Sondheim Scrapbook
For Your Amusement
By Wayman Wong
In January 1976, Pacific Overtures did what U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry did in Japan in 1853. It broke new ground.
The show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman offered much more than "cups of tea and history" as it told the story of Perry's visit to Japan and its repercussions. Directed by Hal Prince and told from the "Japanese" point of view, the musical featured an all-Asian-American cast, a first. And it wasn't afraid to say Noh to Japanese theater; it incorporated theatrical Kabuki and Bunraku traditions as its story unfolded like a delicate origami crane. Given its unconventional subject, staging and score, Pacific Overtures was lauded by some critics ("a brilliant triumph of sophistication, taste and craft"--Howard Kissel) and lambasted by others ("dull and immobile"--Walter Kerr). Even so, the New York Drama Critics Circle chose it as the best musical of the season. However, it was nearly shut out at the Tonys by a Chorus Line sweep, and it closed after 193 performances on Broadway. But it went on to play Los Angeles and San Francisco that fall, winning converts in the West.
What must it have been like to work on Pacific Overtures more than twenty years ago? Though the musical's creators have given their own official version, the Asian-American actors have seldom been quoted anywhere, not even in Craig Zadan's superb book Sondheim & Co. The Sondheim Review tracked down three of its leads--Mako, Soon-Tek Oh and Sab Shimono--and asked them to give their own authentic account of what took place on that historic show.
Mako won rave reviews and a Tony Award nomination (Best Actor in a Musical) for his Broadway debut as the Reciter in Pacific Overtures. A decade earlier he had received an Oscar nomination for his role as Po-Han, the engine-room coolie in The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen. Born in Kobe, Japan, Mako (whose real name is Makoto Iwamatsu) came to the United States in the late 1940s and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. He later co-founded the East West Players, the critically acclaimed Asian-American theater in Los Angeles, where he shared the stage with such fellow Pacific Overtures alumni as Soon-Tek Oh, Sab Shimono and Yuko Shimoda (who died in 1985). His extensive movie credits include Seven Years in Tibet, The Wash (co-starring Shimono) and Tucker.
TSR : How did you first become involved with Pacific Overtures?
Mako: It was a legit play at first, so Hal Prince held auditions in '73, '74. About a year later, I heard it was going to be turned into a musical. I'm not really a trained singer and I had never done a musical, but when I auditioned, I did "Ol' Man River."
TSR : What was it like to work on your first musical, and a Sondheim musical at that?
Mako: I had no idea how difficult Sondheim's music would be. All through the rehearsals, I kept flubbing. There were so many tempo changes. I could never get through the opening number without any mistakes. One day, I went up to Hal Prince and offered to leave the show. He laughed it off. He said, "Don't be silly. That's why we have tryouts." (Pacific Overtures tried out in Boston and Washington, D.C., before opening on Broadway.) The New York opening was really the first time I made it through "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" without any major mistakes. I gave it my all and I loved the challenge.
TSR: How was it to work with Hal Prince?
Mako : Very easy. He trusted me and I trusted him. Even though John Weidman wrote it, Hal said, "We're approaching this show as if a Japanese writer wrote it." I said, "If I see a problem, can I bring it up to you?" He said, "By all means."
I did have one major problem with the book, though. There was a short scene that referred to World War II, but it got eliminated, and so was Japan's defeat and the atomic explosion. Those events had such a phenomenal impact on Japan, physically and psychologically. Hal said he didn't want to alienate American audiences with something that they really didn't know anything about.
TSR: Back then, Asians rarely got cast in musicals, so the talent pool must have been small. Were you pleased that Prince fought for an all-Asian-American ensemble?
Mako: Absolutely. No matter what happens, we couldn't let people say Asian-American actors can't act.
TSR: Do you recall running into any racism?
Mako: I remember we went to the Tony Awards to do a number from the show and we got there by bus. But after the show, we had to walk back to the Winter Garden to get out of our costumes. As we were walking, and some of us were in Kabuki makeup, some of the people on the street were yelling, "Hey, why don't you all go back to China?" On the one hand, we felt we were making progress in the theater, but socially we were getting comments like that.
TSR: What was it like to work with Sondheim?
Mako: Maybe because I was a nonmusical person, he gave me a special leeway. He spoke to me without any arrogance or attitude. He was trying to be the best teacher he could be and I tried to be the best student. I respected him tremendously.
TSR: Before you did Pacific Overtures, had you seen much Japanese theater?
Mako: Yes, I had seen Kabuki and Noh a number of times back in Japan, so I drew on my memory of it to help create the Reciter's role. In Kabuki, there is a "naga uta," who is in essence a reciter. He basically explains the dances and sings and chants. And in Noh theater, the actors seldom talk, so there is a "gidayu," who explains the story and fills the gaps. What we did with the Reciter's role was a combination of the two.
TSR: The Reciter is reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Our Town, in that he narrates and takes part in the story. Does that happen in Kabuki and Noh, too?
Mako: No. But in Pacific Overtures I enjoyed also playing the Shogun and Jonathan Goble because it was a relief for my legs. You see, I sat so long on that stage (as the Reciter) that I later got calluses where I never had calluses.
TSR : For your part, you were nominated for a Tony. What did you think about your chances of winning?
Mako: I had run into (newspaper columnist) Earl Wilson and he told me that he had inside information that I was going to win. I said, "Come on!" I didn't place that much emphasis on the outcome, except I was renting a floor from Jerry Orbach, who had a brownstone, and he was also nominated for Best Actor in a Musical (for Chicago).
I thought Jerry would win. I didn't care for myself. If I got it, I'd have to get up and give a speech. Stanley Holloway and Ian Richardson were also nominated for My Fair Lady , but that was a revival, so I didn't think they stood a chance. But Stanley won. Anyway, I got home late, about 2:30 in the morning. At about 4:30, I heard Jerry Orbach shouting from the floor below, "Hey, Mako! What the f--- happened? I can't believe it; we lost to a f------ revival!"
TSR: If you had won, what would you have said?
Mako: I wasn't going to accept it. I was going to refuse the Tony. Why? Asian-American actors have never been treated as full-time actors. We're always hired as part-timers. That is, (producers) call us when they need us (for only race-specific roles). If a part was seen as too "demanding," that part often went to a non-Asian. I refused to piggyback off the success of Pacific Overtures. If the audience wished to boo me, fine. I would've thanked the people I worked with, but I didn't feel I could accept the award as long as Asian-Americans were not treated (as equals) in our profession.
TSR: Speaking of the Tony telecast, the cast performed "The Advantages of Floating" there. What do you recall about it?
Mako : Because of our placement in the show, we already knew most of the major awards had gone to A Chorus Line. I was really furious at how we were neglected. Before we went on stage, I said to the cast, "Well, the verdict has been handed out. Does that mean we're losers? Hell, no! We're gonna give it our best, so get your butts in gear!" And we did.
TSR: Where does Pacific Overtures rank among your credits?
Mako: It's one of the highlights I cherish most. It altered my view of musicals and expanded my idea of theater.
Soon-Tek Oh (who was listed as Soon-Teck Oh in the production) not only played Kayama's wife, Tamate (in Kabuki, men portray women), he also played Samurai with a Mask, a Storyteller and a Swordsman. Plus, he staged the show's martial arts sequences. Born in Japan and raised in Korea, he came to the United States in 1959. He studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York. He has performed extensively with the East West Players and played Ibsen and Shakespeare. Among his TV credits are M*A*S*H, Marco Polo and East of Eden, and his movies include the James Bond hit The Man with the Golden Gun and A Home of Our Own, co-starring Kathy Bates.
TSR: What did you think when you were offered the role of Tamate?
Oh : I was reluctant to take it because I felt I was too big to play a lady. For an Asian, I'm big, 5-9, 145 pounds. Besides, I didn't have the training to play this type of role in Japan (onagata). Then someone from Prince's office called to say that they weren't doing pure Kabuki and to consider Tamate as one of a handful of characters I'd be playing. So I eventually joined the company.
TSR : You performed a dance during "There Is No Other Way," but you didn't get to sing. Did you ever have any solos?
Oh : I recall there was another song for Tamate ("Prayers"). The first line was "God of Fortune" and she was praying for her husband, who just left for Kyoto. It began as a solo, then became a duet and it was picked up by the company, but it didn't work out.
Also, I used to be in "Someone in a Tree." I was the old man and I think I did about two weeks in Boston, but I asked Hal Prince to be dropped from that song because I played a samurai in the scene right before this. Anyway, I'd have to run, do an immediate costume change and wig change. By the time I'd get two-thirds of the way to making my entrance, I'd hear the intro starting. I was always out of breath. I thought the song suffered for it and my subsequent characters, too. Later on, when we got more settled on Broadway, I thought, "Maybe begging out of 'Someone in a Tree' was a hasty decision because I realized, I'm not singing a word."
TSR: What was your impression of Sondheim?
Oh : We were all in awe of his ability, but he was very down to earth. You listen to the lyrics of "Please Hello" and think, "Wow, this man is a genius!" And his music is so exquisite.
TSR : And what about John Weidman?
Oh: He looked so young and boyish, I thought he was a college student. He was easy to talk to and open to suggestions. We discussed samurais and their place in Japanese society. He was very interested in history and getting things right.
TSR: What was your favorite moment in the show?
Oh : Being an egoist (laughs), I enjoyed playing the Storyteller (in Act Two) because he had a big monologue, so I had the whole stage to myself. I also incorporated some Noh, neo-Kabuki movements, with Mr. Prince's approval.
TSR : The New York reviews were uniformly favorable about the cast of thirty-one performers, but few of you got singled out. The New York Times mentioned only Mako and Isao Sato who played Kayama, the samurai who becomes Westernized. And Rex Reed didn't even try to name anyone, mistakenly assuming the Asian-American cast was a troupe from Japan. Do you think the audiences had trouble telling the Asian-American actors apart?
Oh: I think they might have, even with a program. A theater friend of mine came backstage and said, "You sure got a big credit (in the program) for playing only fifteen minutes in the show." He thought I only played Tamate; he didn't realize I'd played three other characters, and this was a friend. It wasn't prejudice. When we played San Francisco and L.A., where Caucasian audiences are more used to seeing Asian faces, the critics there singled out more of the individual performances.
TSR: As you look back on the show, do you have any regrets?
Oh : I've been thinking about that. One doesn't get that many opportunities to rub elbows with Sondheim, so I wish I hadn't been so awestruck and had spoken up more, but that's how Asians are brought up. You keep a polite distance when it's someone you respect and revere so much. I only hope we did justice to his work. Even before going to the first preview, we knew Pacific Overtures was going to be special, and it was.
Besides creating the role of the fisherman-turned-samurai Manjiro in Pacific Overtures, Sab Shimono originated the part of Ito in Mame , starring Angela Lansbury. Born in Sacramento, Calif., he is a third-generation Asian-American. He studied in New York with Stella Adler for two years (alongside his friend Robert De Niro). Shimono also appeared on Broadway in L ovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, a musical adaptation of Teahouse of the August Moon, and he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Philip Kan Gotanda's The Wash. He also has two Los Angeles Weekly Drama Awards, four Drama-Logue Awards and a Clio. His films include Come See the Paradise, Presumed Innocent and Gung Ho.
TSR : What was Hal Prince like as a director?
Shimono: Demanding. Imaginative. And totally inspiring. We already felt so good because he went out of his way to get an all-Asian cast. That was great because I had just come off of Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, and it was protested because Kenneth Nelson, a Caucasian, was playing (the Asian character of) Sakini. I was in the ensemble and I auditioned to understudy Sakini. I thought I did well, and the producers picked a blond kid from Carousel. I was flabbergasted, and so was everyone else. But we had an all-Asian cast in 1976 (with Pacific Overtures) and it hasn't happened again. Look at Miss Saigon (in 1991). I auditioned for the lead role of the Engineer and they said I couldn't do the material. A total lie. Instead, they cast (Welsh actor) Jonathan Pryce.
TSR: Is Manjiro based on a real person?
Shimono: Yes, he's a hero in Japan. He was shipwrecked off Japan, and a whaler from Connecticut took him to America. I actually met his family in Nagoya, and they're very angry at how he's treated in the show. He came back from America a pacifist and did not believe in the samurai code. But in the play, he becomes a samurai. His story is so famous in Japan that it would have been like a Japanese playwright writing a play that said George Washington was not the first president of the United States. Yet Manjiro's transformation was a good choice, theatrically. I got very Zen during "A Bowler Hat." It was great. I'd go from doing something peaceful (performing the tea ceremony) to getting dressed as a samurai, a man of war.
TSR: What do you recall about performing "Poems," your duet with Isao Sato?
Shimono : It was difficult to learn. It starts with "Rain gathering" and the next verse, Sondheim changes one note. Oh! Or he'll change an eighth rest to a sixteenth rest or something like that. Sondheim's so precise. At first, I thought he was doing that to be mean or naughty, but I soon realized that something was happening to our characters during the rests.
TSR : Isao was not only making his Broadway debut, but his American debut as well. How did you get along?
Shimono: Very well. I'll always remember the last night we sang "Poems" on Broadway. The applause was so overwhelming. It went on and on. The audience didn't want us to go. (Note: Sato died in a plane crash about seven years ago.)
TSR : Of course, you don't sing in "A Bowler Hat," but did Manjiro ever have a solo in the show?
Shimono: No, but in Boston, Hal said, "We're gonna have a number for you in Washington." Sadly, it never came. So I ended up with only one song, but it was a great song.
TSR: Speaking of the score, what other songs did you enjoy?
Shimono : I loved "A Bowler Hat," and the simplicity of this man (Kayama) who's a nobody who becomes a somebody. You saw the whole story of his life in that one song. "Please Hello" was fun, and it was nice to see Asians get a chance to do shtick. And I loved "Chrysanthemum Tea." It made the royal family look human and silly. After we got that number in Washington, I thought, "Good. Now they can get to my number!"
TSR: Mako has said that he felt World War II and the atomic blast should have been part of the show. Did you have any reservations about any other parts of Pacific Overtures?
Shimono: I was never quite comfortable with that last number, "Next!" because it gave a negative ring. It made it sound as if Japan was going to take over (economically), whereas it was just getting better, it was finally coming up in the world. I felt we were attacking the audience, as if to say, "Next! Pearl Harbor is coming again. Next! You better watch it!" I wish the ending had been more of a celebration of the East and West working together.
TSR: Why didn't Pacific Overtures run longer?
Shimono: I think The New York Times review did us in. Clive Barnes gave us a bad review. Then he came back three months later and gave us a good review. But it was too late. After the reviews came out, there was disbelief. We opened at the same time as A Chorus Line and to this day, I still believe Pacific Overtures was the better show. I saw magic happen on that stage. We didn't have any mechanical things. Even the ship (on stage) was pushed by men. When we toured the West Coast, the audiences went crazy over it. There are bigger Asian-American audiences out there.
TSR: Is there anything the creators could have done to "save" the show?
Shimono: They could've given me my song (laughs)!
TSR: What do you get most from working with Sondheim, Prince and Weidman?
Shimono: Their work ethic. You see why they're great and hope it rubs off on you. Every actor in that production gained. It was a breakthrough show (for Asians). It was hopeful. And it gave me the strength to go on with acting.
Wayman Wong is a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright (Whiskey Chicken) and an entertainment editor/cabaret critic at the New York Daily News.
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