Pacific Overtures

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Pacific Overtures
Pacific Overtures (1976).jpg
Logo for the original Broadway production
MusicStephen Sondheim
LyricsStephen Sondheim
BookJohn Weidman
Productions1976 Broadway
1984 Off-Broadway
1987 English National Opera
2003 West End
2004 Broadway revival
2014 Off-West End
2017 Off-Broadway revival

Pacific Overtures is a musical written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. The show is set in Japan beginning in 1853 and follows the difficult westernization of Japan, told from the point of view of the Japanese. In particular, the story focuses on the lives of two friends caught in the change.

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."[1]

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.[1]

Sondheim wrote the score in a quasi-Japanese style of parallel 4ths and no leading tone. He did not use the pentatonic scale; the 4th degree of the major scale is represented from the opening number through the finale, as Sondheim found just five pitches too limiting. The music contrasts Japanese contemplation ("There is No Other Way") with Western ingenuousness ("Please Hello") while over the course of the 127 years, Western harmonies, tonality and even lyrics are infused into the score. The score is generally considered to be one of Sondheim's most ambitious and sophisticated efforts.[2]

The original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures in 1976 was staged in Kabuki style, with men playing women's parts and set changes made in full view of the audience by black-clad stagehands. It opened to mixed reviews and closed after six months, despite being nominated for ten Tony Awards.

Given its unusual casting and production demands, Pacific Overtures remains one of Stephen Sondheim's least-performed musicals. The show is occasionally staged by opera companies. The cast requires an abundance of gifted male Asian actors who must play male and female parts. Women join the ensemble for only half the last song; during the finale, after the lyric, “more surprises next:” 20 women actors join the cast and sing the remaining 1:42 of the show. This creates expensive and challenging casting and thus most regional theatres, universities, schools, and community theatres are unable to produce it.

The most recent revival in 2017 at Classic Stage Company, helmed by John Doyle and starring George Takei, featured a cast of only 10 people, 8 men and 2 women. This also featured a revised book by John Weidman that had a running time of 90 minutes (as compared to the previous 2 hour 30 minute original run time).


Pacific Overtures previewed in Boston and ran at The Kennedy Center for a month before opening on Broadway[3] 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). The original Broadway production was filmed and broadcast on Japanese television in 1976.[4]

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.[5]

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 the show in 1993 at Leicester Haymarket Theatre. Both productions featured Mitch Sebastian in the role of Commodore Perry.

A major production of the show was mounted in London by the English National Opera in 1987. The production was recorded in its entirety on CD, preserving nearly the entire libretto as well as the score.[6]

A critically acclaimed 2001 Chicago Shakespeare Theater production, directed by Gary Griffin,[7] transferred to the West End Donmar Warehouse, where it ran from June 30, 2003 until September 6, 2003 and received the 2004 Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production.[8][9]

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 8.[10][8]

A Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company ran at Studio 54 from December 2, 2004, to January 30, 2005, directed by Amon Miyamoto and starring BD Wong as the Narrator and several members of the original cast. A new Broadway recording, with new (reduced) orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick was released by PS Classics, with additional material not included on the original cast album.[6] The production was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. The orchestrations were reduced for budgetary reasons, as a 27 piece orchestra in 1976 was large, in 2004 it is impossible. Every Broadway Theatre has a unionized “minimum” for number of musicians. Budget restraints have turned then into a “maximum.” As a result, the 1976 RCA recording offers a much fuller sound and a wider spectrum of textures.

In 2017, Classic Stage Company revived Pacific Overtures for a limited run Off-Broadway, with a new abridged book by John Weidman and new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. This production was directed by current Artistic Director John Doyle and starred George Takei as the Reciter. It began previews on April 6, 2017 and opened on May 4, 2017. Originally scheduled to close on May 27, it was extended twice, and closed on June 18, 2017.[11] This production was a New York Times Critic's Pick, Variety's 2017 Top 5 NY Theater Production, & Hollywood Reporter's 2017 Top 10 NY Theater Production. It also received numerous nominations from the Drama Desk, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, & Lucille Lortel Awards. This version ran as a 90-minute one-act and included all the songs from the original production except for "Chrysanthemum Tea". The instrumental/dance numbers of "March To the Treaty House", and "Lion Dance" were also absent from this new version.[12]


Act I

Conceived as a Japanese playwright's version of an American musical about American influences on Japan, Pacific Overtures opens on 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 Yesaemon, is appointed Prefect of the Police at Uraga to drive the Americans away - news which leaves his wife Tamate grief-stricken, since Kayama will certainly fail. As he leaves, she expresses her feelings in dance as two Observers describe the scene and sing 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. Facing 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 can be received without technically setting foot on Japanese soil, thanks to a covering of tatami mats and a raised Treaty House. 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 Oiran girls in the art of seduction as they prepare for the arrival of the foreign devils ("Welcome to Kanagawa").

Commodore Perry and his men disembark 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 observed through the memories of three who were there: a warrior who could hear the debates from his hiding place beneath the floor of the Treaty House, a young boy who could see the action 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 is incomplete. Initially, it seems as if Kayama has won; the Americans depart in peace. But the barbarian figure of Commodore Perry leaps out to perform a traditional Kabuki "Lion Dance", which ends as a strutting, triumphalist, all-American cakewalk.

Act II

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, an American ambassador bids "Please Hello" to Japan and is followed by a Gilbertian British ambassador, a clog-dancing Dutchman, 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 in ceremonial robes for the tea ritual, Kayama gradually adopts the manners, culture, and dress of the newcomers, proudly displaying a new pocket watch, cutaway coat and "A Bowler Hat". But there are other less pleasant changes prompted by westernization. Three British Sailors mistake 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 modern dress. Contemporary Japan - the country 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."

Original Broadway cast — characters[edit]

  • Mako — Reciter, Shogun, Jonathan Goble, Emperor Meiji
  • Soon-Tek Oh — Tamate, Kayama's Wife, Samurai, Storyteller, Swordsman
  • Isao Sato — Kayama
  • Yuki Shimoda — Abe, First Councillor
  • Sab Shimono — Manjiro
  • Ernest Abuba — Samurai, Adams, Noble
  • James Dybas — Second Councillor, Old Man, French Admiral
  • Timm Fujii — Son, Priest, Girl, Noble, British Sailor
  • Haruki Fujimoto — Servant, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry
  • Larry Hama — Williams, Lord of the South, Gangster[3]
  • Ernest Harada — Physician, Madam, British Admiral
  • Alvin Ing — Shogun's Mother, Observer, Merchant, American Admiral,
  • Patrick Kinser-Lau — Shogun's Companion, Girl, Dutch Admiral, British Sailor
  • Jae Woo Lee — Fisherman, Sumo Wrestler, Lord of the South
  • Freddy Mao — Third Councillor, Samurai's Daughter
  • Tom Matsusaka — Imperial Priest
  • Freda Foh Shen — Shogun's Wife
  • Mark Hsu Syers — Samurai, Thief, Soothsayer, Warrior, Russian Admiral, British Sailor
  • Ricardo Tobia — Observer
  • Gedde Watanabe — Priest, Girl, The Boy
  • Conrad Yama — Grandmother, Sumo Wrestler, Japanese Merchant
  • Fusako Yoshida — Musician, Shamisen
  • Proscenium Servants, Sailors and Townspeople: Kenneth S. Eiland, Timm Fujili, Joey Ginza, Patrick Kinser-Lau, Diane Lam, Tony Marinyo, Kevin Maung, Kim Miyori, Dingo Secretario, Freda Foh Shen, Mark Hsu Seyers, Gedde Watanabe, Leslie Watanabe, Ricardo Tobia

2004 Broadway revival cast — characters[edit]

2017 Off-Broadway revival cast — characters[edit]

Musical numbers[edit]

Critical response and analysis[edit]

"Someone in a Tree", where two witnesses describe negotiations between the Japanese and Americans, is Sondheim's favorite song out of everything he has written.[13][14] "A Bowler Hat" presents the show's theme, as a samurai gradually becomes more Westernized as he progressively adopts the habits and affectations of the foreigners he is meant to supervise.[15] “Pretty Lady” is a contrapuntal trio of three British sailors who have mistaken a young girl for a geisha and are attempting to woo her. This is, perhaps, the musical fusion highlight of the show as the orchestra and lays descending parallel 4ths and the singers use a counterpoint form established during the Western Renaissance; again the chord progression is often IV to I, again eschewing Pentatonics.

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."[16]

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."[17] Ruth Mitchell, assistant to Mr. Prince, said in an interview with WPIX that a sense of not belonging was intentional as that was the very point of the show.

Frank Rich, reviewing the 1984 revival for The New York Times 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."[18]

The 2004 production was not as well received. It was based on a critically praised Japanese language production by director Amon Miyamoto. Ben Brantley, reviewing for The New York Times wrote: "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." Of the cast, Brantley wrote, "Even as they sing sweetly and smile engagingly, they appear to be asking themselves, "What am I doing here?""[19]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Original Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1976 Tony Award Best Musical Nominated
Best Book of a Musical John Weidman Nominated
Best Original Score Stephen Sondheim Nominated
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical Mako Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical Isao Sato Nominated
Best Direction of a Musical Harold Prince Nominated
Best Choreography Patricia Birch Nominated
Best Scenic Design Boris Aronson Won
Best Costume Design Florence Klotz Won
Best Lighting Design Tharon Musser Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Musical Nominated
Outstanding Book of a Musical John Weidman Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical Haruki Fujimoto Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Musical Harold Prince Nominated
Outstanding Choreography Patricia Birch Nominated
Outstanding Music and Lyrics Stephen Sondheim Nominated
Outstanding Set Design Boris Aronson Won
Outstanding Costume Design Florence Klotz Won

Original West End production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2004 Laurence Olivier Award Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical Richard Henders Nominated
Jérôme Pradon Nominated
Best Director Gary Griffin Nominated
Best Theatre Choreographer Karen Bruce Won
Best Costume Design Mara Blumenfeld Nominated
Best Lighting Design Hugh Vanstone Won
Best Sound Design Nick Lidster Nominated

2004 Broadway revival[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2005 Tony Award Best Revival of a Musical Nominated
Best Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick Nominated
Best Scenic Design Rumi Matsui Nominated
Best Costume Design Junko Koshino Nominated

2017 Off-Broadway revival[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2018 Drama Desk Award[20] Outstanding Revival of a Musical Nominated
Outstanding Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick Nominated
Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical Dan Moses Schreier Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival of a Musical Nominated
Drama League Award Outstanding Revival of a Musical Nominated
Lucille Lortel Award Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical Steven Eng Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical Thom Sesma Nominated

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Contemporary Japan: A Teaching Workbook". Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ Suskin, Steven. "Show Tunes" (2000). Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-512599-1, p. 283
  3. ^ a b Salicrup, Jim; Zimmerman, Dwight Jon (September 1986). "Larry Hama (part 2)". Comics Interview (38). Fictioneer Books. p. 39.
  4. ^ "Pacific Overtures (TV Movie 1976)". IMDb. 16 August 1976.
  5. ^ Pacific Overtures Listing Archived 2007-09-23 at the Wayback Machine., retrieved December 10, 2009
  6. ^ a b Jones, Kenneth."Pacific Overtures Gets Recorded for CD Feb. 1", February 1, 2005
  7. ^ Kleiman, Kelly. Review, Pacific Overtures, retrieved December 10, 2009
  8. ^ a b " Pacific Overtures' History", retrieved February 23, 2017
  9. ^ "Olivier Awards, 2004", retrieved February 23, 2017
  10. ^ Lipfert, David and Lohrey, David."Lincoln Center Festival 2002", July 13, 2002
  11. ^ Pacific Overtures, retrieved June 28, 2018
  12. ^ Pacific Overtures Classic Stage Company
  13. ^ Hirsch, p. 116
  14. ^ Citron, Stephen. "Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber" (2001). Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-509601-0, p. 216
  15. ^ Hirsch, p. 118
  16. ^ Barnes, Clive. The New York Times, "Theater: 'Pacific Overtures,' Musical About Japan", January 12, 1976, no page number
  17. ^ Kerr, Walter. The New York Times, "'Pacific Overtures' Is Neither East Nor West", January 18, 1976, no page number
  18. ^ Rich, Frank. "Stage:Revival of 'Pacific Overtures'"The New York Times, October 26, 1984
  19. ^ Brantley, Ben. "Repatriating the Japanese Sondheim" The New York Times, December 2, 2004
  20. ^ McPhee, Ryan. " 'Carousel', 'SpongeBob SquarePants', 'Mean Girls' Lead 2018 Drama Desk Award Nominations" Playbill, April 26, 2018


  • Rich, Frank The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson, 1987, Publisher: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-52913-8
  • Hirsch, Foster Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre, 1989, revised 2005, Publisher: Applause Books, (with Prince providing extensive interviews and the foreword.)
  • Ilson, Carol, Harold Prince: From Pajama Game To Phantom of the Opera And Beyond, 1989, published by Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-8357-1961-8
  • Ilson, Carol, Harold Prince: A Director's Journey, 2000, New York: Limelight Editions ISBN 0-87910-296-9

External links[edit]