Even among Stephen Sondheim’s varied and unusual body of work, Pacific Overtures stands out as a unique venture. It has been rarely performed since its original Broadway run, due to its technically demanding score, as well as its strange plot, structure, and recommended casting of only Japanese actors. The new Melbourne production, by Watch This & Manilla Street Productions, understandably sidesteps this last point by incorporating a diverse cast in makeup. But it is nevertheless a successful update of Sondheim and writer John Weidman’s odd, fascinating and sophisticated take on the effects of Westernisation on Japanese culture.
A narrator begins the story begins on a Japanese island in 1853, where for centuries nothing has upset the status quo. The American government has decided to send delegates to Japan to open up trade routes, threatening the traditional Japanese lifestyle. This begins power struggles between the West and Japanese rulers who wish to remain free of foreign interference. Throughout a period of years, the Japanese are threatened and coerced into accepting trade agreements with the U.S. and Europe, causing Japan to become rapidly and irrevocably Westernised.
The show combines elements of Japanese Kabuki theatre with American musical theatre styles. Sondheim’s intriguing score incorporates various Japanese percussion and wind instruments, which add considerably to theimmersive quality of the production. Similarly, many of the lyrics are based on Japanese poetic forms, often including instances of repetition and cyclical structures.
Director Alister Smith uses a limited space to full effect, filling the stage with action at every moment – dialogue, songs, dancing, shadows, puppets. The black-and-white costumes and set serve to emphasise the Kabuki elements and the somewhat alien quality of the show. Pacific Overtures is a very different experience to any other musical; everything in this production, from the set to the music to the often restrained acting, reflects this and immerses the audience in an exotic theatre world.
The struggle between tradition and modernity is at the heart of the musical. One of the funniest scenes of the show involves a resourceful Japanese brothel owner who has decided to turn her attention to the arriving Americans. In ‘Welcome to Kanagawa’, she sings to her employees, persuading them to target Americans for their services and thus adhere to the haiku:
The nest-building bird,
Seeking the tree without twigs,
Looks for new forests.
While the song is played for laughs, it emphasises the need for change. The Japanese rulers are not eager to break from traditional ways, but fail to acknowledge that change is both unavoidable and the cornerstone of progress.
The song ‘Someone in a Tree’, at the end of Act 1, is Pacific Overtures in miniature. One of Sondheim’s finest compositions, the song recounts a meeting between American and Japanese leaders who are attempting to form a truce. These climactic negotiations are described by two onlookers, who are only able to tell the audience limited, unreliable accounts of what happens. As the song progresses, the idea emerges that history itself is unreliable, since it is told to us like a story. As such, history changes with each retelling according to the concerns and prejudices of the teller.
What Sondheim and Weidman suggest in this scene, and throughout the whole musical, is that imperialism can only be viewed subjectively by either the conquering side or the conquered. Neither can provide a truthful rendition of what has occurred, and therefore the moral complications involved in America’s commercial exploitation of Japan can never truly be resolved.
One can’t help but wonder whether this current production surfaced in response to Tony Abbott’s one-note ‘stop the boats’ sloganeering. If so, the musical could be seen as a timely reminder that Australia as we know it is a product of British imperialism. Alternatively, the production could be suggesting that allowing people from different countries into our own can lead to cultural progress. These ideas are never fully spelled out, but they are nevertheless present and no doubt in the mind of many Australians in the audience.
Pacific Overtures challenges our preconceptions about imperialism in ways that they need to be challenged. Its central idea is echoed by Kayama near the end of the show: “One must keep moving with the times.” There is an air of tragic inevitability throughout Overtures, as the Japanese way of life slowly disappears and the inhabitants sell out to the Americans. Such is the nature of change – something must be lost in order for something new to be gained. Pacific Overtures questions whether the loss was worth the progress, and does not offer easy answers.