A Western show with Eastern manners, Pacific Overtures has always been a paradox, another in the long list of post-Follies Sondheim musicals that can never wholly succeed, but are so wonderful, thanks in large part to Sondheim’s contribution, that producers can’t help trying them again and again. A brief visit to Lincoln Center two summers ago by Amon Miyamoto’s Tokyo production of Pacific Overtures has now convinced the Roundabout to let him try his luck with the show in English, making Miyamoto the first Japanese national ever to direct a Broadway musical. He meets this challenge impressively, and the work’s good qualities hold up well, but—no surprise—it still doesn’t wholly succeed. And to the paradox of the original’s existence, Miyamoto’s rendering, which reveals the work’s central flaw all too plainly, has added a new paradox: His Japanese authenticity has made the show almost too American for its own good.
Pacific Overtures is a history lesson, tinged with Brechtian sarcasm and often adopting Brechtian tactics that add an extra layer of European irony to its already dense mesh of American emotionality and Japanese aesthetics. (The latter includes everything from court etiquette to Kabuki stage conventions.) Its subject, justifying the merger of these two central elements, is the opening of Japan to Western trade by Commodore Perry in 1854. Sondheim and his librettist, John Weidman, have evident mixed feelings about this event. On the one hand it represents the endless bullying, driven by capitalist greed, that so often seems to be America’s sole idea of foreign policy. On the other hand, it constitutes a historical inevitability: Japan could not have stayed closed to Western trade forever; what American enterprise did first, European nations were all too eager to copy. The arrival of Perry’s warships had the stamp of destiny on it, like the unmasking of the demon in the climactic play of a Kabuki performance. Not by coincidence, the show’s first-act finale is the appearance of Commodore Perry, doing an Americanized version of the Kabuki theater’s traditional lion dance—the dance of the demon who has cast off his disguise and now pursues the hero in deadly earnest.
This somewhat sententious moment has been considerably truncated in Miyamoto’s staging, and with reason, since his divided feelings on the subject must be in a sense the mirror image of Sondheim’s and Weidman’s: What would a Japanese director of musical shows—a “modern” Japanese person—be today if Japan had never Westernized? The original 1976 production of Pacific Overtures, with its unforgettably stunning designs by Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz, was never condescending, but it was always, inevitably, an outsider’s idea of Japan, not exactly exoticist, but so lavishly, sumptuously beautiful that you could never take it as a representation of life; at best it had the effect of a diorama in a museum. For Miyamoto, all things Japanese, from kimonos to Kabuki, are everyday matters, perhaps a little old and outmoded now, but the opposite of exotic, having the same effect the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge has on a New Yorker who has known about them from day one. His production, though never unattractive, is built for clarity rather than beauty; its function is to take us through the story.
That’s where he bumps up against the work’s central problem. Divided in their view of the event, Sondheim and Weidman are also indecisive in their method of telling it. About half the scenes belong to a historical pageant, illustrating the stages from Perry’s arrival to Japan’s near-total modernization by focusing now on little people, now on the higher-ups. These scenes often interrupt, and rarely further, the play’s slender story, which deals with the friendship between Manjiro, the Westernized fisherman who gives the first warning of the warships’ impending arrival, and Kayama, the shabby samurai assigned to drive them away. Weidman’s rather pat (and apparently unhistorical) assumption is that the two men, having successfully engineered a peaceable collision of the two cultures, trace opposite trajectories: Elevated to samurai rank, Manjiro becomes an anti-Western reactionary, and ends by killing his now thoroughly Westernized former friend.
Leaving historicity aside, this would seem less glib if we saw more of the two men’s evolving relationship, but the middle of the show replaces it with a succession of discrete numbers, some of them among Sondheim’s most brilliant, dealing with ancillary matters: How a wily madam copes with foreign sailors, how Japanese philosophy views a historic event, how America’s presence leads the European nations to demand a share of Japan’s trade. (This last item, the sublimely funny “Please Hello,” gets Miyamoto’s most brilliant piece of staging, with the five envoys using their national flags first as treaties for the shogun’s councillor to sign, and then as maypole ribbons, holding which they dance around him.) Delightful as they are, these digressions knock all narrative interest out of the show as effectively as a punch to its solar plexus. The climax of the Manjiro-Kayama story is asserted rather than dramatized, and we wonder why we were asked to spend so much time with these characters.
In the long run, the shortcomings of Pacific Overtures matter less than its achievements: Taking Japan as fit subject matter for American artists, it welcomed Asian Americans as a working part of our musical theater rather than as curiosities. A generation after that welcome, Miyamoto’s cast demonstrates its success, ironically, by seeming far less rooted in an Asian sensibility than the original. But then this, too, suggests Miyamoto’s approach, which often seems to make Broadwayish what the original strove to make more “Japanese.” Still, to note an irony is not to complain. Miyamoto’s cast, though rarely magical, is always better than competent, and the score’s handling is an infinite improvement over last year’s Roundabout Assassins. If the result is only ripples, and not the entire sea of this historic confluence, one has to concede that some of the ripples are awfully beautiful.