This show has a special distinction among the works of Stephen Sondheim: it is, by all accounts, Sondheim’s favorite of his own musicals. Which of course begs the question of why it has consistently been one of his least popular works from his professional heyday in the Seventies and Eighties. Granted, it wasn’t an outright bomb like the original version of Merrily We Roll Along, but its six-month initial run makes even the title of success d’estime something of a stretch. And while, like virtually all of Sondheim’s work, it has stuck around and even received the occasional large-scale revival, it never really achieved the after-the-fact-hit status that even some of his other less accessible compositions like Sunday in the Park with George have managed.
Certainly, the score is some of the most dazzlingly brilliant work Sondheim has ever done. The score is certainly esoteric in style even by Sondheim standards, being largely built around pentatonic scales and authentic Far Eastern musical idioms. But as strange and austere as it is, it features some of the most beautiful and eloquent music Sondheim ever wrote (especially on the exquisite “There Is No Other Way”), and the lyrics are arguably the best of his entire career (which, as most of you probably know, is no small claim). The majority of the numbers are spare and terse, like “Poems” or “A Bowler Hat”, but there are also three of the most intricate and elaborate numbers of Sondheim’s career: “Chrysanthemum Tea”, about a mother slowly poisoning her son for what she sees as the greater good; “Please Hello”, about the West’s forceful trade “negotiations” with Japan, with each of the ambassadors singing in nationality-specific pastiche; and Sondheim’s favorite of his own compositions, “Someone In a Tree”, a halting, half-coherent narrative that may try the listener’s patience on a first hearing but is actually an immensely insightful statement about the nature of history
The show also introduced a device that would become a key staple of Sondheim’s later work…the use of exquisitely beautiful music to comment ironically on a horrific situation. Here, this technique is represented by “Pretty Lady”, the gorgeously lyrical song of three randy sailors propositioning a Japanese maiden whom they assume to be a prostitute. The music has a definitely Puccini-esque sound to it, which was clearly meant to invoke Madame Butterfly in a darkly ironic way (interestingly, Puccini himself had made use of this same technique almost a century earlier with both Butterfly and Tosca). Sondheim had hinted at this technique in earlier scores, particularly Follies, but this was the first fully developed example of it in his work, and it would become a particularly key element in his next show, Sweeney Todd.
Some people, who are shallow themselves and therefore tend to interpret other people’s thoughts shallowly, interpreted the show as some kind of screed against colonialism, blaming America for all of modern Japan’s problems. In reality, the show is attempting a Tolstoyan view of history as a rushing force that no-one, not even an entire population, can stop, and it retells this story without any particular judgment or bias. Yes, some of the things the West did in the process of “opening up” Japan were reprehensible, and the show does acknowledge that, but it also acknowledges that there were equal faults in the Japanese regime they tore down. This is a story without heroes because its real protagonist is history itself, and it takes a view of history where there are no heroes.
However, this ties in with the one fundamental, arguably even fatal, problem with the show; it really has no characters to speak of, and certainly has absolutely no emotional involvement. It’s not boring…it’s so bizarre that it keeps surprising the audience with each new scene, which makes it almost impossible for it bore them, at least on a first viewing…but it is remote and distant, giving the audience no real reason to care about the events of the story. I hate to say it, but this is the one place in Sondheim’s oeuvre where the accusations he receives of being cold and emotionless actually have some accuracy to them.
Yes, it is based on a Tolstoy-like conception of history, but Tolstoy, in spite of his massive historical panoramas, always managed to give us characters that captured our interests and affections. The only two characters of any lasting importance in Pacific Overtures, Manjiro and Kayama, are more symbolic figures than actual people, and very few of the other characters actually appear in more than one scene. Granted, the show’s unique theater style, while nominally based on Japanese Kabuki theater, blends that genre freely with elements of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater style. However, despite Sondheim’s oft-professed contempt for him, Brecht basically invented the so-called Alienation Effect, and he knew how to present it successfully, which this show, for all its brilliance and innovation, does not.
Let’s remember that there was already a legendary Broadway musical that was about the flow of history and featured no single human protagonist…it was called Show Boat. And Show Boat clearly demonstrates that it’s entirely possible to tell that kind of story without sacrificing memorable or sympathetic characters or the audience’s emotional involvement, so Pacific Overtures really has no excuse. Ultimately, I understand why, while everyone seems impressed with this musical, no-one (except Sondheim himself) is really all that enthusiastic about it. It’s a showpiece, to be sure, but it’s not really very satisfying theater.