Saturday, February 23, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New York, 1976

I have realized that my previous entry, covering my '75 trip to New York, was incomplete. On that excursion, I actually saw one more Broadway show, though technically, it was not in 1975 but rather in 1976. On New Year's Day, 1976, our group was returning to LA in the evening, giving us all a chance to attend a matinee beforehand. We spread out in various directions, to catch one more show before heading home. No one else was interested in my choice so, by myself, I attended the very first New York performance of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. I was very excited to view the beginning of what was sure to be a long and healthy run (it wasn't). I took an immediate liking to this strange story, told in Japanese kabuki style but with an exciting Broadway bent. The music, which has become my favorite of all Sondheim's scores, is an eclectic mix of traditional-sounding Japanese music and top-drawer American musical theatre. The audience seemed a bit confused by the episodic book, which concerned the prying open of Japan's hermetically sealed civilization by foreign forces. Sounds pretty dry, but the story was engagingly told by various participants and observers who would wander onstage, tell their small part of the story, then disappear.

Ah, but that score! "Welcome to Kanagawa," sung by a Madam instructing her new recruits on proper seduction techniques, "Chrysanthemum Tea," sung by the Shogun's mother as she adroitly poisons her son, and "Pretty Lady," perhaps the most gorgeous of the songs, sung by three British sailors to a shy young woman, right before they attempt her rape. The score contains two absolute showstoppers: "Please Hello" opens Act II with various Western ambassadors steamrolling their way into Japanese affairs, and "Someone in a Tree," an ingenious sequence covering the first treaty negotiations, a song which is reportedly Sondheim's personal favorite of all his songs ever written.

Sadly, Pacific Overtures has never caught on like some other of Sondheim's shows. Neither an off-Broadway revival in 1984, nor a major Broadway revival in 2004, generated much interest, and most think of it as one of Sondheim's "interesting" pieces. But I think it's terrific.