Book by John Weidman
Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

INFO:

Opened at the Winter Garden Theatre    January 11, 1976    193 performances (revived several times)
Original Director: Harold Prince
Original Choreographer: Patricia Birch
Original Producer: Harold Prince
Original Leads: Reciter: Mako
Cast Size: Male: 15 or more, some doubled   Female: 0   Ensemble: 2 to 6, all women   Total Cast Size: Anywhere from 16-30-ish, almost all men, of Asian descent or who can pass for it.
Orchestra: 21-22, with an alternate smaller orchestration of 4
Published Script: Dodd Mead
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theatre International)
Recordings: The original Broadway is simply beautiful.
Film: None.
Other shows by the authors: Both: Assassins.    Sondheim: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, FolliesA Little Night MusicSweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park With George , Into The Woods, Passion
Awards: 2 Tonys for design, ridiculous., though the design work for the first production was utterly stunning and certainly deserving. This show should have carried more awards. In general, Broadway failed this remarkable show, though the production was gorgeous, even astonishing at times.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

This show is usually done with an all-Asian cast, or with actors who can pass for Asian. Does it need to be done that way? Probably, but I think some elasticity in casting could be considered. Yul Brynner was hardly Asian, but he played the King of Siam well enough. I think this show should get done, and done as often as possible, and the casting should not limit its potential for production.

And do men need to play all the roles. Not really, and it has been done with success both with women, and Occidental actors. The “all men” approach is a nod to Japanese traditional theater, but even the Japanese forms borrowed by Weidman and Sondheim yield to casting requirements today. The show is certainly well-written enough to not need to cast in this manner, and I do think, stretching the point, that it could be seen as a bit of a gimmick, and even damage the audience’s appreciation for the writing.

It’s a large show, though it can be and has been done in a much smaller manner. Done as it first was on Broadway, the cast, sets, costumes, orchestration are huge. The show, in that form, could be done by Colleges and Universities, regional houses, maybe some stock companies, and pros. In it’s smaller form, it becomes far more able to be done by smaller groups with fewer resources. The orchestration drops for 22 to 4! Sets, which always were suggested in many ways, become even simpler, and a unit set might serve the purposes of the show.

Be Warned:

First, if you don’t use an all-Asian cast, you may hear about it,. You shouldn’t, but you may.

This is a seriously political show. It implies very unfortunate things about The United States, and the various European powers that “opened up” Japan. There will be audiences with the “my country, right or wrong” point of view who simply will not tolerate any criticism of the homeland. These are, at best, rather small-minded people, and usually such people avoid theater anyway. The truth is the truth, regardless of one’s biases.

There are many people who seriously find this show confusing, and easy to dislike. I do understand where they’re coming from – it ain’t “Hello, Dolly!” It’s not the classic sort of musical we’ve come to expect, with a love story or two, some musical comedy hi-jinks, and a happy ending. It isn’t even the more mature, if darker, musical we came to admire in the 60s onward, shows like Man of La Mancha, Fiddler On The Roof, and Cabaret, each occupying a difficult place in the world, at a difficult time. But even those musicals go out of their way to tell a singular, cohesive story (usually with brilliance, I might add). They each sport a sort of love story, a nod to tradition. Pacific Overtures marches to the beat of a distant, scarce-heard drum, and somehow its creators heard the beat and found a way to amplify and share it. There is simply no show like it, for good or bad. And I think it this show’s singular qualities are all good.

Also, “Welcome To Kanagawa” is a funny and suggestive number featuring Japanese whores, and the things they discuss in song are pointedly about their business. A prudish audience won’t like this number at all.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: Three Japanese musicians sit on a platform at the side of the stage, and start playing traditional instruments. A man, his forehead bent to the floor in payer, is lit, the Reciter. He introduces us to Nippon (Japan), in July 1853, and tells us of the plus points to being isolated, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”. It is a changeless land of ancient tradition, and everyone knows their place, from the Emperor to his Shogun, to the samurai and the farmer.

A prisoner is escorted in the dead of night to Lord Abe, a man named John Manjiro who wears western dress. Six years ago he was fishing and his boat was lost at sea. He was rescued by Americans, where he went to school. The Shogun’s mother is interested in America. The man’s life, however, is forfeit under Japanese law, for leaving and for returning to Japan. But he has come back to warn that the American’s are sending an expedition to Japan. And four great black ships with giant cannon have been seen in Okinawa’s harbor.

The Japanese see it as degrading to deal with foreigners, and decide to send a samurai of “little consequence”, Kayama, to do the job, a punishment because he and his wife, Tamate, accidentally fished in the Shogun’s stream. When summoned, Kayama leaves his wife, who is terrified for their lives, and leaves immediately. He is given an inexplicable promotion, made Prefect of Police for the city or Uraga. He does not know why, or the price he will pay. He will be expected to take a boat out to the American ships when they arrive, and order them to return from whence they came. Japan is sacred soil, they must not step on it.

Kayama explains his new commission to his wife, and she asks “There Is No Other Way?” She explains that if he fails, she must kill herself. On the beach, “Four Black Dragons” spitting fire are spotted – how the local Japanese interpret the great American ships and cannon. People flee as best they can.

On the U.S.S. Powhatan, sailors in stylized fairy-tale costumes stand at attention. Two bizarre officers greet Kayama, who is to speak to Admiral Perry, surely the King of Demons. Kayama and officers speak in pigeon English to each other, and it becomes clear that the Americans are going to do whatever they want. Kayama must tell his superiors that he has failed, that he was laughed at. The Americans will only speak to the great men of Japan – the Lords who sent Kayama, those who refuse to sully themselves with such contact. The Lords get an idea – the fisherman they have imprisoned – he speaks the American language, and his life is already forfeit! They summon him. Kayama instructs Manjiro in how to conduct himself with honor, but when the two men meet the Americans on their ship, it is Manjiro with his knowledge of Americans who takes over. He pretends to be a great Lord, someone they’ll respect, and Kayama plays along. It is agreed that both sides will concede – Manjiro will speak to Kayama, who will only speak to the second in command to Perry. And so they talk. The Americans have a letter which must go to the Emperor (shocking to Manjiro and Kayama), or if against their religion, to the Shogun. In six days, they want to have a big ceremony with the Shogun. Manjiro and Kayama tell them it is impossible, they cannot set foot in Nippon. Perry at first shows respect, but says if they can’t arrange to meet on land, he will blow up Uraga with his cannon.

We meet the Shogun and his mother. The man is deeply upset – what is he to do? He seeks expert advice, but all of it is garbage, and he seems to grow sicker every day. As he dies, his mother explains that she has poisoned the Shogun’s “Chrysanthemum Tea”, and that his death is the deterrent to the Americans he was looking for – there’s no Shogun with which to leave a letter! And the man expires. (Remarkable number, hilarious and educative.)

Kayama and Manjiro prepare to die by sword at the hand of a Sumo Wrestler. They have failed. But Kayama has a plan, and hurriedly suggests the Americans be allowed to land at Kanagawa. The cove there is small. The Japanese could cover the sand with mats, build a treaty house, and meet there. When the Americans leave the Japanese would burn the house and mats, and no foreigner would have actually stepped on their soil. Lord Abe thinks the plan brilliant. Kayama is promoted to governor of Uraga, and sent to make the arrangements. Kayama asks to bring Manjiro with him, and he is given the man. Kayama and Manjiro share their experiences of life with each other in the form of Haiku “Poems”. Kayama arrives home to excitedly tell his wife of his grand promotion. But he finds her dead of hari kiri, just as he advised her to do if all was lost.

In Kanagawa, the local Madame of the brothel plans to make a lot of money from these strange foreigners. (“Welcome To Kanagawa”) The meeting house is prepared, and Admiral Perry sends ashore many gifts…whiskey, champagne, more booze, a bathtub, a parlor stove, a fire engine, a working locomotive! The Japanese respond with exquisite gifts of their own, but they are ornate and small by comparison. Both sides prepare for the meeting, and both plan to use force if things go wrong. Various Japanese hide, some under the floor, another is “Someone In A Tree”, and they each tell the audience and Reciter about the meeting from their own limited viewpoint. (Sondheim feels this is the best number he has ever written. It is certainly one of them.) The letter is delivered, the Americans depart satisfied, the house  is torn down and everything burned. All is as if the foreigners never placed their feet on Japanese soil.  All this while a lion-like figure of Commodore Perry does a strutting, leaping victory dance. (“Lion Dance”)

ACT TWO: Lord Abe, the Shogun, bows to the Emperor, the ruler in name only as the Shogun has all power. Kayama is officially made governor of Uraga, Manjiro is allowed his life and made a samurai. They have saved Japan.

And then the Europeans suddenly arrive (the British, French, Dutch, Russians), surrounding Abe with their demands, threats, accents and foreign presence. (“Please, Hello”) And Japan finds itself opened up against its will, and starts an unwilling process of westernization.

The Emperor, a puppet ruler, lives in ignorance of what is happening to his country. A royal story-teller tells a tale of a long-ago time when a Korean Emperor fought off foreign invaders. But the Emperor has no power to strike…unless the Shogun steps aside.

Kayama governs in a way intended to mollify the westerners, and slowly becomes like them. (“A Bowler Hat”) But Manjiro increasingly becomes a Samurai, despising his American education, determined to fight off the foreigners. Japan becomes increasingly westernized, and the Reciter takes on the character of a Texas businessman, introducing the Japanese to the automobile.

Manjiro practices with his sword, as various British sailors approach a Japanese girl, determined to have her. (“Pretty Lady”) They treat her like a whore, to be bought. (This is the allegory of the show, how the west treated Japan.) Several samurai, training Manjiro, cut the sailors down.

Kayama travels by Palanquin to the Emperor, to seek an apology and money for Victoria. Four assassins stop them, determined to restore Japan to its old ways. Manjiro is one of them. He fights Kayama, and Kayama is killed. Abe is killed, and the Emperor will now rule again, and push the invaders into the sea…

But Emperor Meiji, speaking for himself for the first time, has other ideas. Japan will become a modern nation, and they will beat all the western countries at their own game.

And suddenly, we see a modern Japan, degraded and rapidly growing heartless. (“Next”) Everything freezes for just a moment, as the image of the Nippon that was, Kayama and his wife, pass silently through the modern world and stare at it with horror. And the Reciter whispers, “welcome to Japan.”

THE SONGS:

“Prologue”, “The Advantages of Floating In the Middle of The Sea”, “There Is No Other Way”, “Four Black Dragons”, “Chrysanthemum Tea”, “Poems”, “Welcome to Kanagawa”, “Someone In A Tree”, “Lion Dance”, “Please Hello”, “A Bowler Hat”, “Pretty Lady”, “Next”

Hits include: Well, no “hits” as such, but I think everything in this score is pretty much a masterwork.

MY OPINIONS:

Feel free to skip or ignore my opinions and rating.  Of course, after you lose your shirt because you chose to ignore this advice, you may find yourself contemplating the advantages of floating in the middle of the sea…

This will be long.

Okay, I’m going to say something bound to stir debate. I believe this is Stephen Sondheim’s best show.

Is your computer still turned on? Did you throw it out the window? Are we still friends? Am I damned for all time?…no, that was Judas in J.C., Superstar.

It’s Sondheim’s best show for me. It is the Sondheim show I am most moved by, and frankly, it’s not even close. I wept when I saw it, for the last ½ hour. I wept just now, reading the script. It is the show I personally find the most rewarding to watch, of all his shows, Gypsy and West Side Story included. The only possible exception is A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, my vote for funniest musical ever written. I absolutely love both these shows, and for very different reasons. I also really love A Little Night Music.  And the rest of Mr. Sondheim is a bit of a toss-up for me.

I’m going to say something even more potentially hateful. Here goes. (Deep breath.) I’m not a huge fan of Sondheim’s work, generally. I give you his genius, it is undeniable. I give you that often, he has provided more exciting shows to a hungry theater than anyone else writing at the time, shows that stretched or redefined the definition of musical theater. The stretching bothers me in some way, as does the redefinition, though I am far from conservative in these regards.

STOP YELLING AT YOUR COMPUTER AND ALLOW ME TO EXPLAIN!

Sondheim stretched theater toward ever darker subjects. The rape of Japan is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. But how about a musical comedy that tells the tale of  a guy who pretends to be a barber while slicing the throats of customers, and his girlfriend who chops them up and places their corpses into yummy pies? (Sweeney Todd, of course.) How about a musical about a guy surrounded by unhappily or uncomfortably married couples who chooses to remain an irresponsible child and never marry? (Company) Or one about a bunch of old actors soon to die, having a last very unhappy gathering, squabbling over affairs that died decades ago, and then moving on to their inevitable deaths? (Follies) Or how about a musical that takes all our favorite fairy-tales and adds a second act that is grim beyond words, with lots of deaths and bloodshed? (Into the Woods) Or a musical all about Presidential Assassins?

Nope, I do not find any of these ideas to be particularly wonderful base material for a musical, sorry. You can go dark, sure, as The Threepenny Opera does, say, a show as grim as any of Sondheim’s. But Threepenny makes a revel, a jest of its grimness, and the audience is in on the joke. Sondheim’s shows sometimes take a bath in grimness, and come out smelling…well, grim. And I think this has done a terrible thing to musical theater as a whole. I think it’s contributed to the decline of audience interest in musicals over the past 50 years. (Note – I did not say it caused a decline in the interest of actors, or directors, or musical theater writers, all of whom have been somewhat inspired by Mr. Sondheim’s efforts. I’m talking about the ticket-buying audience that pays our bills, now.) What’s more, I think after an audience experiences enough downers in the theater, musicals or other, they stop being interested in attending. A downer now and then is fine, it’s human, it’s even necessary. There will always be a place for Oedipus Rex and King Lear. But when our very brightest and most brilliant writer of musicals (Mr. Sondheim, I nod to thee) dedicates the bulk of his career to such grim exercises, he serves only a small intelligentsia drawn to such fare, and pushes the rest of the audience away. And so he has. And as so many writers now attempt to write in the “Sondheim mode”, usually with nowhere near his passion or intellect, the musical seems to me to be in serious danger for its life. (Hence, this site!)

And yet, I at least like all the shows I mentioned, though not as much as my friends the critics, and other musical theater aficionados, are inclined to. I do not see Sondheim as the salvation of the musical. His lyrics take no interest in the audience and it’s ability to understand, to get it. They are brilliant, certainly – but frequently over-written, and often heartless. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s no Alan Jay Lerner, and I think he could benefit from some of Lerner’s warmth.  (He has said in one of his books that he doesn’t care much for Lerner’s work.  I guess.)

And Sondheim’s music? He often says that a song is “melodic” enough, memorable enough, if it’s repeated enough, as Rodgers & Hammerstein did in their shows. Fair enough, but Sondheim doesn’t like reprises, really. So he does not give the audience the chance to appreciate the often beautiful and melodic work he does – and it is complex, beautiful work, it needs a full hearing, or three. I can sing most of the songs Mr. Sondheim has composed. But I’ve listened to them each 100 times, so sure, they are memorable to me. (See, I do appreciate and study his work!)

Okay, this show. Pacific Overtures is a most unusual show in almost every respect. It is a daring, breathtaking theatrical experiment, integrating as it does Japanese forms of theater with the western musical. Pacific Overtures does not look or sound like any other show, though the score carries all the Sondheim trademarks, for better or worse (almost always better, in this case). It isn’t even cast as other shows are! Usually, men play all the female roles in this show, including prostitutes, until the final number when actual women appear on stage, if briefly. It’s “story” covers 150 years, and is almost Brechtian in the way it pushes through plot points and characters, to get to the heart of a social and political truth – that Japan allowed itself to be raped by Western powers, some 150 years ago.  I’m certain Brecht would have appreciated this Sondheim work.

Sondheim’s powers are at their peak with this show, and that is not a small thing. He demonstrates an extraordinary level of mastery as a composer, a lyricist, and a story-teller, really at a level for which I would be hard-pressed to come up with an equal. Maybe My Fair Lady is the professional match (and then some), but not much else. And the authors never stop entertaining, never stop making the audience think. The book and score are wed together in surprising and effective ways. The book is both loose, in that it races through the years, and tight, in that it develops characters and situation with economy and expertise.

Experiments like this usually fail on the artistic level. They get so involved with method that they forget there will be a living audience to please. That is absolutely not the case, here. The experimental aspects of Pacific Overtures all work at the beck and call of the message, the story being told, and to the benefit of the audience. This show is very much an outgrowth of the mass experimental theater movement of the 50s-70s. It is, in fact, a high point of that motion, an extremely experimental approach wedded to the height of professionalism.

There’s more. Sondheim and Prince have variously both claimed to dislike Brechtian theater, an approach to theater designed by German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, meant to “alienate” an audience emotionally so that they would evaluate the show they are watching on an intellectual level. Well, Pacific Overtures certainly shows marked and obvious sign of Brecht’s influences. Many of the devices he recommends are in use, including the avoidance of a deep look at any character, in favor of a deep look at a time, a place, a situation with social and political ramifications. And let’s face it, those who have read Brecht’s plays know that he was never serious about alienating an audience emotionally. He was too good a writer for that. We could almost go so far as to say that Pacific Overtures is very much a Brechtian piece of theater, and perhaps the best example of such in decades.  I’m sorry, Masters Prince and Sondheim, it’s how I see the thing.

These are my opinions, here. I think this is a very hard show to do right. But when done right, as I believe the original Broadway was, it is jaw-dropping. It is very emotional, and certainly elicited tears from me. And it is the kind of show that makes one proud to be in the arts. What higher praise can I offer a show?

MY RATING: ** (an excellent show, well worth considering)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

It’s very complex, orchestrally, vocally, and harmonically. No one writes with more complexity than Sondheim. Your Musical Director will need to be an exceptional musician. Your singers will need time to learn this score, it won’t happen quickly. Note – many roles are doubled and tripled up, to keep the cast size down.

Reciter – (Also plays the Shogun) Either a lyric baritone with some high notes, or a tenor with some low notes, A3-G5. A voice filled with character, does not need to be a brilliant singer. Does need to be a brilliant actor who sings expressively and accurately.

Manjiro – Tenor, a role without a huge range, but must be a fine voice, clear and open.

Kayama – Two octaves, G3-G5, again a tenor with low notes or baritone with high notes. A strong, professional voice, clear in expression, a very strong actor.

Tamate – Kayama’s wife, played in the original by a man, lyric baritone, must sing with emotion and clarity. Can be played by a woman, mezzo.

Abe – Tenor, limited range okay.

Commodore Perry – Tenor.

Shogun’s Mother – Played by a man, a character tenor with a real ability to sound the role. Can be played by an alto.

Madam – Played by a man, a tenor with a bit more than an octave, not hard to sing, must be strong comic actor.

Dutch Admiral – Tenor, shrill, screechy, ridiculous accent.

French Admiral – Lyric baritone, French accent over pronounced, comic.

Russian Admiral – Bass-baritone, strong accent, comic.

British Admiral – Lyric baritone, very proper British, excellent with a patter verse.

Ensemble – Mostly men to play samurai, soldiers, what have you. Most key roles, and there are many, should be doubled and tripled up, so each actor has a lot to do, and the ensemble is very small, or non-existent. You’ll need some women for the last number. Everyone should sing and harmonize well, and real musicianship would certainly be welcome.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

There are numbers where some dance applies, particularly the mad, impassioned, frightening Lion Dance, a solo executed by a man in a mask. Musical staging will need to be thorough, stylized to fit the show, and yet understandable and entertaining for a western audience, a fine line to walk. Numbers that could benefit from a choreographer include “The Advantages of Floating In the Middle of The Sea”,“Four Black Dragons”, “Chrysanthemum Tea”, “Welcome to Kanagawa”, “Someone In A Tree”, “Lion Dance”, “Please Hello”, “Pretty Lady”, “Next”.

“The Advantages of Floating In the Middle of The Sea” in introduces the world of Nippon, 1854. It is foreign to our way of life and our thinking, and the movement could be very stylized, not at all modern, but rich and interesting.

“Four Black Dragons” is almost a play unto itself. Like “Someone In A Tree” it does the Rashomon-thing of telling us a story from different viewpoints. The stage should come to life with movement as people flee these oncoming monsters from hell, and I don’t think most productions do enough to show the true terror of the moment.

“Chrysanthemum Tea” is a comic masterpiece, a ballet in words and music slowly illustrating a murder, one rationalized in a very odd and funny way. The Shogun should be animated at first…but become less so with each passing day. His explosions of anger grow ever more feeble, which means that early on, they will need to be impressive. And the mother who administers the poison should be pragmatic and simple in her movements, as she is in her mind. The contrast as she grows animated and he becomes stationary and, well, dead, should be visually emphasized.

“Welcome to Kanagawa” is an instructional for prostitutes, done rather tongue-in-cheek, while still attempting to maintain decorum. If you have men playing the whores, so much the funnier, but don’t let it get unfunny with women! This is a musical comedy number, colored with the period and style of music.

“Someone In A Tree” is staged more than danced, the location of each singer is key.

“Lion Dance” should be your best dancer. Madly athletic, even breathtakingly gymnastic in its leaps. All-American in some of its moves, strutting, confident, belligerent.

“Please Hello” is another Musical Comedy number, in the Gilbert and Sullivan Mode, with four Admirals and the Reciter himself as “chorus”. Stiff, aggressive, entirely comic, and just a little frightening, while using nationalistic stereotypes and their moves to communicate what will happen now to Japan. Have fun!

“Pretty Lady” is almost a slow-motion rape of a young Japanese girl (or man playing her), buy three British sailors. It is beautiful, even haunting, musically – but should be hideous, unbearable in its movement. It is symbolic of the rape of a nation, but is literally the rape of a young and innocent girl. When the men are cut down with samurai swords, the audience should be relieved, and feel it justified…and that fight should be choreographed, as well.

“Next” should wreak of modern, trashy, disco-rock movement, it should violate the sensibility and calm and history that we’ve been treated to throughout the show. It should feature women gyrating in ways that would have gotten her killed by a samurai just a century earlier.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Reciter – a mature actor, age 35-50, Japanese ideally, able to play with authority, humor, a sense of irony. A huge role, the “star” of a show that doesn’t really have a star. Should have various accents at his disposal, including Texas. Able to soften, to envision and share the sense of loss and pain as Japan changes. Cast for acting, type, then voice (must sing well enough), some movement. Plays the Shogun, who is poisoned. Plays a Texas businessman. Plays the Emperor Meiji. Could do more than he already does!

Manjiro – 25-40, plays young, later plays mature. Wide-eyed, enthusiastic at first, he grows into a bitter mature man, leaning ever more to violence. Must see him age. A strong actor, singing well will help, some movement.

Kayama – 25-40, dour at first, experiences terrible tragedy and must continue his life, and so he plays ball and becomes increasingly European. Must see him age. A strong actor, strong singer, some movement.

Tamate – Kayama’s wife, 25-ish, feminine, gentle, fragile. Played originally by a man, believably. (All men playing women must do so believably except for a single moment in “Welcome to Kanagawa”, where they all sing in baritone range, just for one line.) Cast for acting and look, then singing.

Abe – Age 40-60, ages as the play goes by. Moistly an acting role. Powerful, used to having his way, irrational in that he cannot understand why the world doesn’t simply go as he wishes it to. A strong actor with presence.

Commodore Perry – “American”, played by an Asian actor, with pigeon-English, until he comes into his own and is articulate in Act II. Could do his own dance. Actor, dance, singer, need to do all three well.

Shogun’s Mother – 40-50. A man in the original production. A battleship of a woman, imposing, dainty though large, incredibly pragmatic. Get a strong actor (or actress), the right type, and she must sing very well and move well.

Madam – 35-50, a man in the original. Intense, detail-oriented, professional. An actor (or actress) with strong comic ability, then singing (must be good), and some movement.

Dutch Admiral – 35-50, slight build, ratty, over-the-top accent, officious, bigoted, unlikeable. A musical comedy character. Singing, then type, acting, dance.

French Admiral – 35-50, very French, officious, bigoted but polite. A musical comedy character. Singing, then acting, dance.

British Admiral – 35-50, very proper, capable of spitting out lyrics at a Gilbertian rate. A musical comedy character. Singing, then acting, dance.

Russian Admiral – 35-50, a bear of a man in a fur coat, large, overbearing, demanding, rude, self-involved, strong accent. Musical comedy to his bones. Singing, then acting and dance.

Ensemble – Depends on your approach., You won’t need much of an ensemble if you double and triple-up your leads. They can play roles like the Fisherman, and the Thief who see the “Four Black Dragons”, and roles such as the man in the tree, and the samurai under the floor, in “Someone In A Tree”. I would do this, cut that cast size way down, and give everyone a lot to do. They will all need to sing very well, various registers. Movement is a plus.

SETS:

There are several approaches. The original Broadway was a parade of fantastic images, including the prow of an American warship (!), and a small Japanese rowboat used to take Kayama and Manjiro to that ship that rolled, so the could “row” to the ship. (Beautiful effect.) Most of the sets, however, we made of screens that slid about into new positions for each new scene. They did have almost a full hut-like structure for the American/Japanese meeting at the end of Act I. That’s a tough scene for a designer, because the house is there, an actor is underneath it, singing, and another in in a tree above, singing! The complex Broadway set showed this all rather literally, as I recall it.

I like the idea of using screens of a traditional Japanese design, to create changing locations, instead of literal sets. You certainly do not need the seemingly real prow of a warship, with cannon aimed at the audience, though it was very impressive. Seeing “American sailors” patrol a high, elevated point of the stage, over the action, will get the idea across. Kayama and Manjiro can mime-dance their trip across the water to the American warship, simple and free, as there’s nothing to build. Screens could shift for the negotiating hut. (The screens could be hooked up tin the rafters, or manually rolled from place to place by actors.)

I loved this show fully produced. But it will be a beautiful show with a unit set, and limited cast size, and small orchestration. And that approach, done creatively and with a firm and high sense of the aesthetics of Japanese art and culture, may be a better way to isolate and focus on the story and characters.

COSTUMES:

Period costumes, for geisha, wives, samurai, shogun and emperor. Take a look at some Kurosawa movies to get the idea. Then, as they westernize, there are some laughs to be had as a bowler hat, a tie, a vest sneak into traditional wear, and then the laughs should die as western wear replaces Japanese culture completely.

Most of the Japanese costumes can be rather easily built, or found at a costume shop. Just remember, your cast must really be able to breathe and sing.

Exaggerated nationalistic cartoon costumes for the foreign Admirals and their men, as if seen through eyes that do not understand who these people are, or what they are, was the Broadway production’s approach. It was an interesting approach, but of course, traded heavily in stereotypes. It was funny, though. If you have a better idea, try it out. If you go “literal”, or “real” with period costuming for the navies of these various countries, and their ambassadors, that may work, as they’ll be largely spit and polish, shining white suits that hurt the eye to look upon, as if Gods had descended from these black ships into Nippon. Worth a thought. Work closely with your Director as to the concept to be developed.

PROPS:

Letters, right for the period. Rifles and bayonets for the sailors. Tea cups for the Shogun to drink from and die, and traditional, ornate Japanese tea sets. Samurai swords (props, dull, no point, obviously). Modern walkman-like things and purses and cell phones for “Next”. Prop shops will need to be explored for the weapons, I would think. Not an easy job.

And there may be some masks needed, as for the Lion Dance. I’d start early, plan on building any needed unusual props.

LIGHTING:

Fluid, aesthetic, able to direct the audience’s attention smoothly. Moods must be clearly established., Moonlight should be magical. Nature should be felt, lived in, and a sense of wind and storm and rain and the ocean should inform the lighting. Perhaps some interesting lighting effects could help communicate the ocean that Kayama sails across? And rain could fall on the two men reciting “Poems”, another lighting effect aided by distant sound, or orchestral effects? We should feel the traditional ties to nature in the way the show is designed, and how these are lost as we approach modernity, and the lighting should be a major part of this.

A chance to be very creative, to build something lovely and effective.

MAKE-UP:

A lot of traditional Kabuki make-up, with it’s own unique rules for characters! You will really need to research this before designing anything, unless you have a strong, working knowledge. A real job., for this show.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Music Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Costume Designer, Make-Up Designer, Choreographer, Reciter, Manjiro, Kayama.

MY THOUGHTS:

Love the show. I do not understand a lot of the critical response. Walter Kerr, a critic I usually admire, felt that the Japanese already do this “sort of thing” better, so why bother. I have no idea what he’s talking about. This is an American Musical, and no one does that better than Americans. It is a Broadway Musical. It uses effects and ideas from traditional Kabuki theater to provide a context, a sensibility both in terms of story-telling and aesthetics. But at its core, this is an American Musical.

I love the passion of this show, and the intelligence of it. It dares much, adventures into unknown territory, discovers and accomplishes much, and fails rarely and only in insignificant ways, in my opinion. I can think of few shows more deserving of a long life.