News & Notes
In a talk at Fairfield University, Sondheim remembers his collaborators
and his shows
The New York Philharmonic offers Sondheim a commission
Given its premiere in Japan, Pacific Overtures is a triumph
Sondheim and Weidman praise the production
Students learn about violence and responsibility in an education program connected with Assassins
Two Forums and a Sondheim revue at the Fringe in Edinburgh
Director Matthew Warchus and set designer Mark Thompson talk about Follies
Betty Garrett returns from a Hollywood career
After a smash cabaret act, Polly Bergen is ready to play Carlotta
Joan Roberts, the original Laurie, will be back on Broadway
Marge Champion will dance across the Follies stage
Barbara Cook talks about Follies in Concert
Ken Mandelbaum remembers Follies and more Follies
A Little Night Music
Sondheim veterans in a production in Massachusetts contemplate this
Paul Gordon, the composer/lyricist for Jane Eyre, says he was inspired by Sondheim’s works
The New York Philharmonic Sweeney CD is transcendent; another collection
of Sondheim songs
Here’s a Pseudolus who doesn’t take liberties with the role
For Your Amusement
Take a trip around the world in Sondheim shows
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Pacific Overtures makes a spectacular debut in Tokyo
By Gary Perlman
[Editor’s Note: this is a longer version than that published in the print issue.]
The idea of a Tokyo production of Pacific Overtures has something of a Victor/Victoria quality about it: a Japanese production of an American musical about the Japanese reaction to the arrival of Americans in Japan.
This is not quite like bringing a Japanese “Pearl Harbor Memories” to Honolulu, but it is true that the momentous changes that Commodore Perry’s arrival helped foment, a quaint story for Americans, are a vital part of the Japanese national identity. Indeed, many of the events and characters portrayed in the show – Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the world, Manjiro, the Tokugawa shogunate, the Meiji revolution and its consequences – are as familiar to any Japanese schoolchild as George Washington and the Revolutionary War are to Americans.
Even so, this is different from Americans enjoying a production of 1776. Because the show was written by Americans for American audiences, the different perspective makes a Japanese production a challenge in some unexpected ways. In October, in a production directed by Amon Miyamoto, Pacific Overtures was given its Japanese premiere at The Pit, a 342-seat space in Tokyo’s New National Theatre.
It was an unquestioned critical and popular triumph for Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who attended the final performances, as well as the Japanese creative staff.
Moreover, it certainly shed new light on the show. Watching “Someone In A Tree,” the first-act song about varying perspectives, I had a sudden image of Harold Prince in a tree and Miyamoto under the floorboards, both looking at the script. In any event, judging from the video of the original Broadway production and the text (used in Tokyo) of the off-Broadway version, I can say that the Japanese show is a radical rethink.
The most interesting question is how the Japanese themselves viewed the show. But that ties in important ways to the text and production, so let’s look at those aspects first.
In terms of design, the Tokyo production sought to highlight the distinction between the Japanese (“us”) and the rest of the world (“them”). Miyamoto’s approach had already been suggested in the poster art: As opposed to the American logo featuring a kabukiesque figure, the advertising in Japan had a realistic (and none-too-flattering) rendering of Commodore Perry by a 19th-century Japanese artist.
A visible metaphor for this division was established in the very structure of the set. The stage was a square platform surrounded on three sides by water, looking very much the “floating island” in the text. It was reminiscent of a Noh stage, including the use of unvarnished pine-like wood for the set.
The stage was framed by two giant torii, the large crossbar-like structures that mark the entrance to shrines, thus suggesting the “sacred” nature of Japan. In the back was a wooden lattice frame with doors in the center that opened to reveal two more sliding doors, which were used for scenes such as those with the emperor. This gave a feeling of multiple layers, of another world within.
Screens were also introduced, in extremely inventive ways, for many scenes. During the first act, before the nation was “violated,” Japanese characters all remained within the confines of the stage proper, an effective symbol for the nation’s isolation.
In contrast, the hanamichi – the walkway extending to the back of the theater – represented the sea and more generally the world outside. The Black Ship never appeared as it did so dramatically in Boris Aronson’s famous design, remaining an abstract presence; foreigners initially stayed exclusively on the hanamichi. Thus, the hanamichi was used not just for entrances and exits, but for entire scenes involving the foreigners, who delivered their lines essentially from the middle of the audience.
This made for some uncomfortable head-turning, particularly for those (like me) towards the front of the theater. On the other hand, it gave an otherworldly quality to the foreign invaders, and added a three-dimensional quality to the show, effectively pulling the audience into the action.
In the real payoff, it also heightened the drama significantly in moments when the gap was breached, such as Kayama’s venture onto the hanamichi to confront the Black Ship as well as the eventual entrance of foreigners onto Japanese soil. The invasion of the foreign ambassadors in “Please Hello” put an end to the divide, with foreigners and Japanese alike then appearing on both the stage and the hanamichi.
More strikingly, the director abandoned the kabuki style of the original production for a more naturalistic approach. For one thing, he reasoned that Japanese audiences do not see Japan as particularly exotic – even the 19th-century setting is standard fare for television samurai dramas.
Moreover, as kabuki is a well-entrenched art form in Japan, audiences might hold acting and production standards to levels that ordinary musical actors could not hope to meet, akin to judging Ethel Merman by the standards of grand opera. (Miyamoto himself was raised next door to one of Tokyo’s major kabuki theaters.)
In any event, a kabuki version would have required an entirely different style of acting and language that would have been more alienating than enlightening. To encourage the empathy that Japanese audiences quite naturally feel for the Japanese characters, a more natural presentation seemed an appropriate choice.
Thus, the Japanese scenes were generally acted, spoken and costumed in a fairly standard manner, as a kind of costume drama. The Reciter was portrayed in rokyoku style, a kind of traditional storytelling. In fact, the role was played by a well-known rokyoku comedian, Takeharu Kunimoto, who was able to interpolate some of the tricks of his trade in a way that made the role completely his own. Overall the Reciter played a more dynamic and physical role than the stationary narrator in Harold Prince’s version.
The rest of the cast played their roles as appropriate. In the impressive opening scene, the cast, all dressed in nondescript black outfits, appeared slowly on stage as a loinclothed figure beat a taiko drum. As the Reciter took over, they gradually rose and, using screens, disappeared and reappeared in their costumes.
The director thus established immediately the abstract feel of the overall piece as the Reciter told the story, even as the individual scenes themselves were realistically presented.
In another example, “There Is No Other Way” was not so much danced as intricately staged to the music , with Kayama and his wife slowly preparing for his journey in a natural yet highly evocative manner. In “Four Black Dragons,” the actors again played their roles straight, but were backed by an innovative use of wooden screens, which almost became characters on their own: unseen actors not only slid them across the stage but brought them forward, turned them on their sides, and wove them in to accent the music and action on stage.
The director’s own favorite point of the show was “Someone In A Tree,” which used the simultaneous representation on stage of past and present. He interpolated this idea into other moments, such as introducing Tamate as a ghostly vision in the early stanzas of “A Bowler Hat.”
Overall, the presentation was straightforward. The sets were clean and spare, and even the exquisite costumes were generally a subdued tone, mainly white (lords and high officials), blue (townspeople) and black (foreigners). The austere look of the show actually brought out the humor in a highly effective manner. Miyamoto is an old hand at comedy, and made the most of his opportunities here (helped, again, by the presence of an actual rokyoku performer). The tone of the book lent itself very well to this treatment, a tribute to Weidman’s skills.
Having ditched the kabuki style, Miyamoto also abandoned the concept of an all-male cast, using females for the more serious female roles such as Kayama’s wife, Tamate. This changed the dynamics of such scenes as “Welcome to Kanagawa,” which used only two men in drag in Tokyo along with three women. We were also deprived of the sudden jolt in the original production when women suddenly appeared on stage in the final song, “Next.”
Additionally, many women in the audience expressed offense at what they felt were stereotypically weak female characterizations, especially Tamate’s Butterfly-like suicide and the “Pretty Lady” sequence. The use of men in these roles, as in kabuki, would have injected a layer of fantasy that might have made such scenes easier to accept. Still, this also involved questions of modern women’s image of themselves, which is a matter for another article. (It should be remembered here that the director, while Japanese, is also male.) Whatever the differences between Japanese and non-Japanese cultures, we seem to share at least the same gulf between men and women. This may be the real twain that will never meet.
Miyamoto had his real fun with the foreign characters in the show. As opposed to the authentic costumes and look of the Japanese characters, the foreigners wore frightening half-face masks with huge noses and wild wigs, resembling the contemporary drawing used for the poster art. As that drawing suggested, foreigners must have been perceived as monsters, and the production showed this very humorously. Miyamoto gave Commodore Perry this same look rather than the lion-like kabuki figure described in the original script, and made him into a awesome seven-foot figure.
The director further preserved the Japanese/foreign divide by having the American characters on the Black Ship speak English as per the original script. Manjiro interpreted back into Japanese for Kayama – and, therefore, the audience – which actually makes more sense than the original version. Miyamoto got terrific mileage out of this at the end of the scene: When the Americans threaten to “blast [Japan] off face of earth,” Manjiro was speechless for a moment, leaving the expectant Kayama and audience hanging before interpreting the news. This added a wonderful comic touch that would be impossible in an English production.
In a major change, with the lion gone, Miyamoto cut the Lion Dance at the end of the first act, jettisoning much of the music and reworking the scene (with the author’s permission) so that the foreigners were back on the hanamichi and the entire Japanese cast gathered on the stage. The invaders then screamed, somewhat histrionically, “Remember America!,” followed by an immediate blackout. This seemed to me a bit overdone but did bring the first act to a dramatic close.
The subsequent arrival of foreigners in “Please Hello”, when the various admirals bounded from the hanamichi into “Japan,” was done appropriately broadly and very humorously. It was here that the Japanese audiences perceived most clearly where the show was going, providing what was certainly among the most popular scenes in the show. The various foreigners all had the same frightening masks as the Americans, with only different colored wigs to distinguish them. They had Lord Abe sign not documents but large national flags that they carried in with them, an interesting variation that again showed the stylized nature of the foreign scenes versus the more realistic Japanese scenes.
As opposed to the lovely and historically accurate Japanese costumes, there was a curious choice in terms of the foreign costumes. Rather than using the various uniforms of the nations represented, costume designer Emi Wada (an Academy Award winner for the film Ran in 1985) dressed all the ambassadors in the same undefined outfits in a more unified approach.
I suppose the intention was to play down the differences among the various foreigners in order to preserve the stress on the Japanese/foreign gap. However, the Russian ambassador’s repeated warnings not to touch his coat are much funnier when he’s wearing mink rather than a normal jacket (he had only a thin furry thread running down the front). Also, the Dutch ambassador was strangely wearing normal shoes even as he referred specifically to his wooden clogs. I’m not sure if these were intentional touches or oversights.
However, less forgivable was “A Bowler Hat,” when Kayama referred to a cutaway even as he held a normal jacket. Since the Western items referred to in this scene are highly symbolic of the great changes in Japanese society at the time, it would seem wiser to stick to the real thing.
All in all, Miyamoto’s confident production worked superbly for Japanese audiences, playing ingeniously on their familiarity with the Black Ship incident. I thought many touches were at least equal to the original production. The initial isolation of the Japanese was splendidly drawn, giving great power – and, in the end, poignancy – to the nation’s gradual emergence into the modern world. Additionally, the choreography, in such scenes as “Four Black Dragons” and “Pretty Lady,” made skillful use of screens and the small stage and was wonderfully integrated into the story. I’m not sure how the show would work for overseas audiences, who generally lack a knowledge of Japanese history, but Miyamoto has at least proven definitively that the show can stand on its own without the kabuki elements that defined the original production.
Certain elements in the script were strange or unclear for Japanese audiences, though Miyamoto was able to direct around most of these. For instance, he simply excised the sumo wrestlers, who would not have played any part in the shogun’s household or politics. Also, in the original script, the procession in the opening scene introduced the emperor first, followed by the shogun and then the feudal lords. Miyamoto reversed the order to present the emperor last for reasons of respect and Japanese tradition. Unfortunately this went against the music, as Sondheim himself pointed out, but was probably a correct choice given the expectations of the audience, not to mention the continued presence of an emperor in Japan today.
However, other difficulties inherent in the text proved impossible to get around. The shogun’s murder in “Chrysanthemum Tea” was already considered pretty farfetched even for a fictional treatment, but worse, the idea of Lord Abe taking over as shogun would be akin to England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair becoming king after the death of Queen Elizabeth. As audiences are well aware, the shogun would be chosen strictly from the Tokugawa family.
Faced with this clear impossibility, the translator suggested making Abe a representative of the shogun. Miyamoto, however, made a deliberate choice in this case to retain the original script. He felt interestingly that an obvious fabrication of this scale would help audiences see the overall musical as an invention, allowing them to accept other historical inaccuracies more readily.
Another tough case was Tamate’s suicide, which puzzled many viewers. They saw no clear reason for an action so desperate. Had she borne her worries stoically and waited patiently for her husband to return, she would have painted a sympathetic and indeed more “Japanese” picture (as seen by the Japanese). Then, if he had failed in his mission, her suicide might have been understandable. As it is, her death seemed to come from nowhere. When I explained to my friends the presumed motivation behind her actions, it prompted amused comments regarding foreign stereotypes of the Japanese committing suicide at the drop of a hat.
Still more troublesome was the portrayal of Manjiro. Audiences could forgive as dramatic license the concept of Manjiro as an intermediary with the Americans, though the real Manjiro, suspected initially as a spy after his return from the United States, was never allowed anywhere near the invaders.
The real problem was his transformation from a fisherman to a samurai, which was difficult to swallow in the form presented in Tokyo. (The actual Manjiro served honorably in the Meiji government after the demise of the shogunate and lived a long peaceful life. Incidentally, prior to the production, the producers visited Manjiro’s descendants bowing and bearing gifts to apologize for the show’s treatment of their ancestor.)
Japanese audiences are aware that social boundaries in feudal Japan were not crossed that easily in terms of either actual rank or sensibility; even if Manjiro was accorded samurai status in name, which appears to be true, the idea of a fisherman turned killer brought the portrait at times closer to caricature than character. It didn’t help that the Japanese have an image of Manjiro as a Westernized character, indeed Japan’s first “international” figure, rather than a rabid samurai.
Miyamoto’s approach to the issue illustrated his meticulous concern for detail in realizing his overall vision . First, against the explicit directions of the script, Manjiro, glimpsing into Kayama’s home, became aware of Tamate’s suicide. Miyamoto felt that this would set off doubts in Manjiro’s mind about whether the involvement of foreigners in Japan was really for the good.
Later, when Manjiro was granted the status of samurai, he did not immediately change into the appropriate clothes as on Broadway, as this was felt too sudden. Similarly, during “A Bowler Hat,” he did not do the refined art of a tea ceremony as in the script, but stared blankly at the sword placed in front of him as if contemplating the meaning of his new position. It was only then that he changed outfits, accepting gradually if reluctantly his new role. (This also made a nice contrast with Kayama, who changed into Western clothing in the same scene.)
A more substantial change – and, I think, an improvement – was Manjiro’s final confrontation with Kayama. In the original production, Manjiro, having taken the side of the anti-Western forces, attacked and killed Kayama with a sword. Given the fact that Kayama had earlier saved his life, this had a false feel to it in a country where loyalty is valued above all.
In the Tokyo production, it was Kayama who challenged first, and not with a sword but a gun, a symbol of his Westernization. Manjiro thus took up the challenge only in defense, which got around the problematic image of the sword-happy samurai. When he told Kayama to “draw your sword as a samurai .” he was telling him to put away his gun, effectively challenging Kayama’s very identity as a Japanese. Despite the unlikely picture for audiences of Manjiro as assassin, the scene rang psychologically true. I would not be surprised if this were introduced into future versions of the show as the definitive interpretation of this scene.
As opposed to these difficult elements, the Japanese language and perspective added immeasurably to several scenes that might not be replayable elsewhere. The humorous confrontation between Kayama/Manjiro and the Americans on the Black Ship has already been mentioned. In another splendid example, the metaphorical story told to the Emperor about Korea was done in the tradition of ancient kyogen theater (a relative of Noh) in an exceptionally well-written and beautifully danced scene. Miyamoto was able to take advantage of a certain level of knowledge here regarding kyogen conventions and language. Similarly, the rokyoku tradition involved a certain way of singing and narrating that were perfectly adapted to the show’s needs.
More generally, the audience’s familiarity with the show’s story allowed many short-cuts. The mere mention of the Emperor Meiji, for instance, immediately evoked images both of Japan’s rapid modernization and the growing dominance of the military in that era, affecting the director’s choices in the final scene.
There was a major addition by Miyamoto during the final song “Next” that was certainly not imported. The song began as in the original, but as Japan hurtles forward in its modernization and the music intensified, the performers, dressed in black as in the show’s opening scene, appeared on the stage with rifles in hand, representing the militarization that eventually carried Japan into World War II.
Then Commodore Perry made a dramatic appearance, walking slowly and deliberately down the hanamichi towards the stage. He was the same monstrous giant as in the end of the first act, but his eyes this time were two bright lights. When he reached the end, facing down the guns that were now pointed at him, the stage suddenly exploded in a bright flash of light, with the torii dramatically toppling and people on stage collapsing in death–this is the explosion of the atomic bomb, a moment in Japanese history as pivotal and symbolic as the arrival of the Black Ship.
It was a moment that felt necessary in the show and was brilliantly realized. At a press conference, Weidman noted that the original production was criticized severely for leaving out World War II, which wasn’t the initial intention. Sondheim had originally conceived “Next” as a series of images that would cover Japan’s entire history from the Meiji era to the present, including the war and atomic bomb. Ultimately the creators discarded this as unwieldy. (Weidman recalled wryly that the first question asked by numerous viewers was “What happened to Pearl Harbor?” They were essentially accusing the musical of letting the Japanese off too easily, thus displaying their own fundamental misunderstanding of what the show is all about.)
The Japanese, of course, knowing full well the tragic course of their own history in the first half of the century, did not need such things spelled out, and could appreciate the scene in the larger context of their own relentless pursuit of progress. The characters at this point rose slowly and moved back into the number, but the lingering image of the bomb made clear the price that Japan has had to pay for its journey into the present. (It should be said that Japanese writers and directors rarely pass up an opportunity to feature an atomic bomb scene, but almost invariably to highlight their status as victims. Fortunately, the show’s context and Miyamoto’s direction avoid this trap.)
The performers subsequently shed their jackets to reveal black tanktops, and the pace gradually picked up to a powerful crescendo. The narration within the song, which included updated references to Japan’s ubiquitous cellular phones and the Internet, was dominated by an unbroken recital of numbers- -dates, sales figures, production volumes, share prices–while the images of numbers were flashed onto the set. This was Miyamoto’s own comment on Japan’s race to the top in the postwar era. It was a marvelously accomplished number.
BOOK AND SONGS
In an excellent translation by Kuni Hashimoto, Weidman’s book played remarkably well in Japanese, even out of its kabuki context. The progression of the story, relationships between the characters and overall tone of the show, with the significant exceptions mentioned above, were very satisfying to Japanese audiences. This was helped as well by the smart directorial vision of Miyamoto, who made certain adjustments to fit his audience’s understanding and perception.
To an extent, the reception of the book was affected by the awareness that this was a Western creation. For example, whatever the feelings towards Manjiro’s presentation, which might have been rejected in a Japanese version, audiences could appreciate the idea of a character who becomes more Japanese in spite of (or because of) his knowledge of the West, as opposed to the gradual Westernization of the very Japanese Kayama.
Much of the charm of the English book, of course, was the “Japanese” feel of the dialogue. This was necessarily affected by the translation, as the language had to sound natural in order to work here. Still, the flow of the piece remained smooth, and the reception to the story was quite positive.
Sondheim’s music, removed from the familiar context of its English lyrics, was cast in a particularly new and unexpected light. The orchestra, outstandingly conducted, had only seven pieces and two percussionists, yet sounded absolutely thrilling. The music itself is neither Japanese nor pretending to be so, but the composer has found an idiom that wonderfully suits the Japanese sensibility. The songs appear to be composed for the most part in a limited range, without showy leaps up the scale or belting endings. Whatever the effect in English, this fit precisely the Japanese fondness for more controlled emotions, giving the lyrics a perfect underpinning.
The opening number worked exceptionally well with the rokyoku style of narration. Since audiences here were expecting a “Broadway” sound, the opening number was crucial for preparing them for what’s to come, and I think the result was very successful.
Other standouts include “There Is No Other Way” and “Chrysanthemum Tea.” which sounded almost as they had been composed for the Japanese lyrics. The more melodious “Pretty Lady” and “Next” conveyed nicely the feel of Japan’s increasing Westernization after the restrained sounds that have preceded them . If the Japanese production did anything, it highlighted the genius of the music, and made a strong case for the score as perhaps the best that Sondheim has composed.
Hashimoto’s translation of Sondheim’s lyrics was superb. This was an impressive feat considering the complexities of the Japanese language, encompassing 19th-century court dialogue, kyogen theater, traditional poetry and more, which have to sound fairly authentic yet still understandable to Japanese ears.
I was particularly impressed by “Chrysanthemum Tea,” which, sung by the mother of the shogun, needed to be in a very specific idiom while still dealing with the intricate word play of the English lyrics. The result remarkably covered all these bases. As it turned out, though, Hashimoto said that such densely worded songs were actually easier than the sparer sound of, for instance, “A Bowler Hat,” which he cites as the biggest single challenge. I also enjoyed “There Is No Other Way”, whose title was translated nicely as “The Bird Waiting For [Someone’s] Return.”
I suppose it helped that Hashimoto was dealing with his own culture, as opposed to recent Japanese productions of “Company” and “A Little Night Music,” which other translators attempted with less success, to put it politely. Hashimoto, who played the Reciter in a Sydney production of the show some years back, had a clear feel for the work as a piece of theater, and his contribution to the show’s success was significant. Amazingly, most of the songs even rhymed, a real rarity for Japanese music given the limited sounds in the language.
Generally, the complexity of Sondheim’s lyrics does not give itself over to translation into Japanese as easily as, say, the broader sentiment of Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim has been a major influence on musical theatre in Japan, but this has been due almost entirely to the huge success of West Side Story and, to a lesser extent, Gypsy. Maybe this production will win a few converts for the real Sondheim. I hope they remember the Pacific Overtures translator if they ever decide to recreate Sweeney Todd (anyone out there listening?).
The Japanese, known for their perverse interest in how the world views them, seemed to respond very favorably to the production as a whole, especially the second act. Musically, the comic numbers “Welcome To Kanagawa” and “Please Hello” were big crowd-pleasers, expertly translated and inventively staged. Most popular seemed to be the “Bowler Hat” sequence, which appeared to strike a particular chord with its depiction of a world in gradual but inexorable change, a much-loved theme among audiences here. (Fiddler on the Roof, another show about the inevitable passage of tradition, has been a tremendous favorite in Japan for decades.) The final moments of the show, when Kayama and his wife reappeared quietly in a moving reminder of what has been lost, were also considered supremely effective.
It is always difficult to gauge a hit in Japan, since runs are typically limited to a month or two; this production played for only 25 performances. However, the half-empty theater at the start of the run soon gave way to capacity houses, indicating that word of mouth was strong and that audiences were approving. The final performance earned loud bravos and a standing ovation, almost unheard of among the typically more restrained audiences here, and Sondheim and Weidman were brought onto the stage to wild cheers. Reviews were also enthusiastic. The show definitely deserves a wider audience here, and a revival would appear a certainty.
I once asked a Japanese friend why Commodore Perry bullied himself into Edo when he could have simply sailed a bit further down to Nagasaki, where the shogun was already allowing limited foreign trade. She considered briefly, then answered, “Because he was American.” This production marks, finally, the true coming of Sondheim to Japanese musical shores, and I can only hope his stay will be as long and influential.
Gary Perlman is a Tokyo-based writer and producer.
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