A look back: Pacific Overtures in Tokyo (太平洋序曲)

A look back: Pacific Overtures in Tokyo (太平洋序曲)


(I discovered that an article I wrote back in 2001 for the Sondheim Review (scroll down) is still available online, so I decided to link to it here. I discuss the innovative Tokyo production of the Japan-themed Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures, which later moved to Broadway in both Japanese and English versions. The latter was doomed by a poor choice of venue, though it did win a Tony nomination for Best Revival. Here are my thoughts on its Tokyo debut.)

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 [2001], 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.

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A look back: Tokyo’s Prince of Broadway

A look back: Tokyo’s Prince of Broadway

I see they’re going ahead with Prince of Broadway, the long-aborning retrospective of producer/director Harold Prince’s estimable career in the theater. While noting (and hoping) that the show may have been dramatically transformed since then, I recall that the preliminary version that played in Tokyo in October 2015, reviewed here, was mainly a succession of I-produced-this-I-directed-that musical scenes plucked from his various shows and recreated with little or no context. It was like a Wikipedia entry on stage, a list of disembodied names and songs. As I noted then:

The numbers are nearly all famous songs presented with costumes and scenery reminiscent of their shows but no background whatsoever. So we get an old guy with a milk cart wishing he were rich, a painted emcee welcoming us to a nightclub, a woman in a chair pouting about clowns, a gravelly voiced woman who wants to propose a toast, a man in a prison cell babbling about dressing up mannequins, and so forth. Not remotely interesting to anyone who doesn’t know these shows and songs…and not particularly interesting to me, a big musical buff who’s seen this all before.

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New York (March 2015)

New York (March 2015)

  • Semele, 3/8/15 (Sun), BAM
  • The Audience, 3/10/15 (Tues), Broadway
  • On the 20th Century, 3/11/15 (Wed), Broadway
  • Honeymoon in Vegas, 3/11/15 (Wed), Broadway
  • An Octoroon, 3/18/15 (Wed), Off Broadway
  • An American in Paris, 3/19/15 (Thurs), Broadway
  • Paint Your Wagon, 3/20/15 (Fri), Encores!
  • The King & I, 3/21/15 (Sat), Lincoln Center
  • On the Town, 3/21/15 (Sat), Broadway
  • Finding Neverland, 3/22/15 (Sun), Broadway

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Much Ado About “Comet”

  • Much Ado About Comet

A producer trying desperately to save a sinking show removes a relatively unknown actor (with full compensation) in exchange for a major box office draw. Seems straightforward enough.

Now try it again: A producer trying desperately to save a sinking show removes a relatively unknown black actor (with full compensation) in exchange for a major Caucasian box office draw. If that sounds different to you, then the problem may be you.  Continue reading

Phantom of the Opera (Japanese)

  • オペラ座の怪人 (Phantom of the Opera)

7/22/17 (Sat), Yokohama

I hadn’t seen the stage version of Phantom since Las Vegas in 2007 (and before that in NY in 1997 – there’s a pattern there). This was the first time to catch the massively successful Japanese version. I was invited by a friend who’s seen the show, by his estimate, around 120 times (!!) and had secured extra tickets for this sold-out-as-usual run. The Shiki Theatre Company, the keeper of the Japanese version, has multiple casts in the main roles and, to prevent a bias in sales toward the more popular performers, doesn’t announce which cast is appearing until a week in advance, way too late to score tickets. Pretty slimy. (Shiki’s uncomplaining fans, like my friend, simply buy tickets for multiple performances in hopes of landing their preferred actor/actress.) Unfortunately for my friend, the phantom this time was his fourth choice among the five playing the role. But the rest of us were happy just to be there.  Continue reading

The Threepenny Opera (NT Live)

  • The Threepenny Opera (NT Live)

6/21/17 (Tues), Tokyo

A dark sleaze-fest by Rufus Norris. There was no papering over the cruelty or cynicism of the show, though I could have done without the unnecessarily crude rendering of the lyrics in English by author Simon Stephens (lots of shits and fucks). Vulgarities abound in the book as well, such as the fingers up the butt and a line about cheese that I wish I could forget. Macheath remains the two-, three- or more-timer who has made Polly his latest wife, raising the wrath of (1) her parents, who want him dead (he was also shtupping her mother), (2) his other wife Lucy (he tries to convince her that he wants Polly only for her brains), and (3) Lucy’s father, Inspector Tiger Brown, who as Mack’s former collaborator (and apparently lover) feels betrayed. Another lover Jenny is bribed to give away his whereabouts, and the situation deteriorates from there. The show and its focus on London’s low-life were conceived by Brecht basically as an excuse for his anti-capitalist screed, which remains hard to take seriously as social critique. But it’s good fun to watch.  Continue reading

London (June 2017)

London (June 7-15)

  • Lettice and Lovage, 6/7/17 (Wed), Menier
  • Love in Idleness, 6/8/17 (Thurs), West End
  • Half a Sixpence, 6/8/17 (Thurs), West End
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child I & II, 6/11/17 (Sun)
  • Kiss Me, 6/12/17 (Mon), Trafalgar Studios
  • Life of Galileo, 6/13/17 (Tues), West End
  • Tristan and Yseult, 6/14/17 (Wed), Globe
  • The Philanthropist, 6/15/17 (Thurs), Trafalgar Studios
  • Incident at Vichy, 6/15/17 (Thurs), Kings Head Theatre

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