The title of the work is drawn directly from text in a letter from Admiral Perry addressed to the Emperor dated July 7, 1853:
“Many of the large ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas, though they are hourly expected; and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Edo in the ensuing spring with a much larger force.
But it is expected that the government of your imperial majesty will render such return unnecessary, by acceding at once to the very reasonable and pacific overtures contained in the President’s letter, and which will be further explained by the undersigned on the first fitting occasion.
In addition to playing on the musical term “overture” and the geographical reference to the Pacific Ocean there is also the irony, revealed as the story unfolds, that these “pacific overtures” to initiate commercial exploitation of the Pacific nation were backed by a none too subtle threat of force.
Built around a quasi-Japanese pentatonic scale, the music contrasts Japanese contemplation (“There is No Other Way”) with Western ingenuousness (“Please Hello”). The score is generally considered to be one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and sophisticated efforts
The original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures in 1976 was presented in Kabuki style, with men playing women’s parts and set changes made in full view of the audience by people dressed in black. It opened to mixed reviews and closed after six months, despite being nominated for ten Tony Awards.
Given the unusual casting and production demands, Pacific Overtures remains one of the least-performed musicals by Stephen Sondheim. The show is occasionally put on by opera companies.
Pacific Overtures previewed in Boston and ran at The Kennedy Center for a month before opening on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on January 11, 1976. It closed after 193 performances on June 27, 1976. Directed by Harold Prince, the choreography was by Patricia Birch, scenic design by Boris Aronson, costume design by Florence Klotz, and lighting design by Tharon Musser. The original cast recording was released originally by RCA Records and later on CD. This production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, and won Best Scenic Design (Boris Aronson) and Best Costume Design (Florence Klotz).
An off-Broadway production ran at the Promenade Theatre from October 25, 1984 for 109 performances, transferring from an earlier production at the York Theatre Company. Directed by Fran Soeder with choreography by Janet Watson, the cast featured Ernest Abuba and Kevin Gray
The European premiere was directed by Howard Lloyd-Lewis (Library Theatre, Manchester) at Wythenshawe Forum in 1986 with choreography by Paul Kerryson who subsequently directed productions in 1993 and 2006 at Leicester Haymarket Theatre.
A major production of the show was mounted in London by the English National Opera in 1987. The production was recorded in its entirety, preserving nearly the entire libretto as well as the score
A critically acclaimed 2001 Chicago Shakespeare Theater production, directed by Gary Griffin, transferred to the West End Donmar Warehouse, where it ran from June 30, 2003 until September 6, 2003 and received the 2003 Olivier Award for Best Musical Production.
In 2002 the New National Theatre of Tokyo presented two limited engagements of their production, which was performed in Japanese with English supertitles. The production ran at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center from July 9, 2002 through July 13, and then at the Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center, from September 3, 2002 through September
A Broadway revival ran at Studio 54 from December 2, 2004 to January 30, 2005, directed by Amon Miyamoto and starring B.D. Wong as the Narrator and several members of the original cast. A new Broadway recording, with new (reduced) orchestrations by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick was released by PS Classics, with additional material not included on the original cast album. The production was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
The Original broadway production was filmed and broadcast on Japanese television in 1976.
Conceived as a sort of Japanese playwright’s version of an American musical about American influences on Japan, Pacific Overtures begins its journey to the present day in July 1853. Since the foreigners were driven from the island empire, explains the Reciter, there has been nothing to threaten the changeless cycle of their days. Elsewhere, wars are fought and machines are rumbling but in Nippon they plant rice, exchange bows and enjoy peace and serenity. (“The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”) But President Millard Fillmore, determined to open up trade with Japan, has sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry across the Pacific.
To the consternation of Lord Abe and the Shogun’s other Councillors, the stirrings of trouble begin with the appearance of Manjiro, a fisherman who was lost at sea and rescued by Americans. He returns to Japan and attempts to warn Abe of the presence of warships in the waters around Okinawa, but is instead arrested for consorting with foreigners. A minor samurai, Kayama, is appointed Prefect of the Police at Uraga to drive the Americans away – news which leaves Tamate, his wife, grief-stricken since it will result in certain failure and shame. As he leaves, she expresses her feelings in dance as two Observers describe the scene and reveal her thoughts (“There Is No Other Way”). As a Fisherman, a Thief, and other locals relate the sight of the “Four Black Dragons” roaring through the sea, an extravagant Oriental caricature of the USS Powhatan pulls into harbor. Kayama is sent to meet with the Americans but he is rejected as not important enough. He enlists the aid of Manjiro, the only man in Japan who has dealt with Americans, and disguised as a great lord, Manjiro gets an answer from them: Commodore Perry announces that he must meet the Shogun within six days or else he will shell the city. Faced with this ultimatum, the Shogun refuses to commit himself to an answer and takes to his bed. Exasperated by his indecision, his Mother, with elaborate courtesy, poisons him. (“Chrysanthemum Tea”).
With the Shogun dead, Kayama devises a plan by which the Americans, thanks to a covering of tatami mats and a raised Treaty House, can be received without having, technically, to set foot on Japanese soil. He and Manjiro set off for Uraga, forging a bond of friendship through the exchange of “Poems”. Kayama has saved Japan, but it is too late to save Tamate. He returns home to find her dead from seppuku. Already events are moving beyond the control of the old order: the two men pass a Madam instructing her inexperienced Girls in the art of seduction as they prepare for the arrival of the foreign devils (“Welcome to Kanagawa”).
Commodore Perry and his men come ashore and, on their “March to the Treaty House”, demonstrate their goodwill by offering such gifts as two bags of Irish potatoes and a copy of Owen’s “Geology of Minnesota”. The negotiations themselves are seen through the memory of three who were there: a warrior who could hear the debates but not see it from his hiding place under the floor of the house, a young boy who could see the action but not hear it from his perch in the tree outside, and the boy as an old man recalling that without “Someone In a Tree”, a silent watcher, history may have been incomplete. Initially, it seems as if Kayama has won: the Americans depart in peace. But then the barbarian figure of Commodore Perry leaps out to perform a traditional Kabuki “Lion Dance”, which ends as a strutting, triumphalist, all-American cakewalk.
The child emperor (portrayed by a puppet manipulated by his advisors) reacts with pleasure to the departure of the Americans, promoting Lord Abe to Shogun, Kayama to Governor of Uraga and Manjiro to the rank of Samurai. The crisis appears to have passed, but to the surprise of Lord Abe the Americans return to request formal trading arrangements. To the tune of a Sousa march, they bid Japan “Please Hello” and are followed by a Gilbertian British Admiral, a clog-dancing Dutch Admiral, a gloomy Russian and a dandified Frenchman all vying for access to Japan’s markets. With this new western threat, the faction of the Lords of the South grow restless. They send a politically charged gift to the Emperor, a storyteller who tells a vivid, allegorical tale of a brave young emperor who frees himself from his cowardly Shogun.
Fifteen years pass as Kayama and Manjiro dress themselves for tea. As Manjiro continues to dress with painstaking slowness into ceremonial robes for the tea ritual, Kayama slowly adopts the manners and dress of the newcomers, proudly displaying his new pocket watch, cutaway coat and “A Bowler Hat”. But there are other less pleasant changes prompted by westernization. Three British Sailors mistake a the daughter of a samurai for a geisha (“Pretty Lady”). Though their approach is initially gentle, they grow more persistent to the point where they offer her money (with insinuations of rape); the girl cries for help and her father kills one of the confused Tars. Reporting on the situation to the Shogun, Kayama witnesses Lord Abe’s murder by cloaked assassins and himself is killed by one of their number – his former friend, Manjiro.
In the ensuing turmoil the puppet Emperor seizes real power and vows that Japan will modernize itself. As the country moves from one innovation to the “Next!”, the Imperial robes are removed layer by layer to show the Reciter in T-shirt and black trousers. Contemporary Japan – the world of Toyota and Seiko, air pollution and market domination -assembles itself around him. “There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago…” he says, “Welcome to Japan.”
Critical response and analysis
“Someone in a Tree,” where two witnesses describe negotiations between the Japanese and Americans, is Sondheim’s favorite song out of everything he’s ever written “A Bowler Hat” presents the show’s theme, as a samurai gradually becomes more Westernized as he progressively adopts the habits of the foreigners he is meant to supervise
The New York Times review of the original 1976 production said “The lyrics are totally Western and—as is the custom with Mr. Sondheim—devilish, wittily and delightfully clever. Mr. Sondheim is the most remarkable man in the Broadway musical today—and here he shows it victoriously…Mr. Prince’s staging uses all the familiar Kabuki tricks—often with voices screeching in the air like lonely sea birds—and stylizations with screens and things, and stagehands all masked in black to make them invisible to the audience. Like choreography, the direction is designed to meld Kabuki with Western forms…the attempt is so bold and the achievement so fascinating, that its obvious faults demand to be overlooked. It tries to soar—sometimes it only floats, sometimes it actually sinks—but it tries to soar. And the music and lyrics are as pretty and as well-formed as a bonsai tree. “Pacific Overtures” is very, very different.
Walter Kerr’s article in the New York Times on the original 1976 production said “But no amount of performing, or of incidental charm, can salvage “Pacific Overtures.” The occasion is essentially dull and immobile because we are never properly placed in it, drawn neither East nor West, given no specific emotional or cultural bearings.
The New York Times review of the 1984 revival stated that “the show attempts an ironic marriage of Broadway and Oriental idioms in its staging, its storytelling techniques and, most of all, in its haunting Stephen Sondheim songs. It’s a shotgun marriage, to be sure – with results that are variously sophisticated and simplistic, beautiful and vulgar. But if Pacific Overtures is never going to be anyone’s favorite Sondheim musical, it is a far more forceful and enjoyable evening at the Promenade than it was eight years ago at the Winter Garden…Many of the songs are brilliant, self-contained playlets. In Four Black Dragons various peasants describe the arrival of the American ships with escalating panic, until finally the nightmarish event does seem to be, as claimed, the end of the world….Someone in a Tree, is a compact Rashomon – and as fine as anything Mr. Sondheim has written…The single Act II triumph, Bowler Hat, could well be a V. S. Naipaul tale set to music and illustrated with spare Japanese brushstrokes…Bowler Hat delivers the point of Pacific Overtures so artfully that the rest of Act II seems superfluous.
The 2004 production was not as well received. Based on a critically praised Japanese language production by director Amon Miyamoto, “Now Mr. Miyamoto and “Pacific Overtures” have returned with an English-speaking, predominantly Asian-American cast, which makes distracting supertitles unnecessary. The show’s sets, costumes and governing concept remain more or less the same. Yet unlike the New National Theater of Tokyo production, which was remarkable for its conviction and cohesiveness, this latest incarnation from the Roundabout Theater Company has the bleary, disoriented quality of someone suffering from jet lag after a sleepless trans-Pacific flight. Something has definitely been lost in the retranslation.” Speaking of the cast, reviewer Ben Brantley stated, “Even as they sing sweetly and smile engagingly, they appear to be asking themselves, “What am I doing here?””