15 May 2014

'Pacific Overtures' (1976)

[While I was in the Washington, D.C., area recently, the Washington Post ran a brief column reporting that Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator and arranger of many stage musicals, was the winner of this year’s Stephen Sondheim Award, given by Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre to honor “those who have contributed to the works of legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim, and the canon of American theater.”  Tunick is the fifth recipient of the award, the gala presentation of which is hosted by the Embassy of Italy in Washington.  Tunick, the first orchestrator to win a Tony Award (Titanic in 1997), is one of only 12 people to have also received an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, and an Oscar, the Grand Slam of performance awards sometimes known as EGOT.  (The other 11 are actors John Gielgud, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Moreno and Whoopi Goldberg; composers Marvin Hamlisch, Richard Rodgers, and Robert Lopez; director/screenwriter Mel Brooks; director Mike Nichols; and producer Scott Rudin.  Hamlisch and Rodgers also won Pulitzers, and three other artists have also won all four awards, but one of theirs was an honorary or special award.) 

[The Signature’s citation for Tunick’s Sondheim Award reads in part: “Jonathan Tunick’s work defines the modern sound of Broadway.  While best known for his association with Stephen Sondheim (Mr. Tunick has scored almost all of Sondheim’s musicals), he was the recipient of the first Tony Award for Best Orchestrations for his work on Titanic: The Musical.  In total, Jonathan Tunick has orchestrated, re-orchestrated or composed for nearly 60 musicals, 13 films and more than two dozen television programs.

[The Stephen Sondheim Award was established in 2009 in honor of the award-winning theatre writer and composer. Previous recipients have been Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Hal Prince.  Arlington’s Signature Theatre (not to be confused with New York City’s Signature Theatre Company), whose self-declared mission is “to produce contemporary musicals and plays, reinvent classic musicals, develop new work, and reach its community through engaging educational and outreach opportunities,” was founded in 1990 by Eric Schaeffer (the current artistic director) and Donna Lillard Migliaccio and has produced 23 Sondheim plays in the years since. 

[Tunick, inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in January 2009, has orchestrated nine of Sondheim’s scores, nearly every one of the composer’s works since Company in 1970, plus two compilations based on Sondheim music, and re-orchestrated several more, including the 1962 romp A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for the 1996 revival).  In 1976, I saw the début production of Pacific Overtures (which premièred on 11 January), Sondheim’s collaboration with John Weidman, and on 30 April of that year, I wrote a review of the performance.  I’m posting that unpublished review from my archives as a tribute to Tunick’s work.  ~Rick]

Stephen Sondheim has finally found the appropriate vehicle for his kind of musical.  Pacific Overtures, now playing at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, directed by Harold Prince with book by John Weidman, is a quasi-Kabuki rendering of the opening of Japan to Western trade by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in July 1853, and the events thereafter.

Appropriate is perhaps a poor word; perfect would be a better choice.  From the moment Act I started with three Japanese musicians revolving into view to the closing number, “Next,” I was scarcely able to keep my cool.  And the Lion Dance, a traditional Kabuki dance here combined with a cake-walk, performed with truly magnificent grace and agility by Commodore Perry (Haruki Fujimoto) to close the first act, is an experience I won’t soon forget.  Wearing an Uncle Sam suit and a long, white mane, Fujimoto looks leonine and hoary at one and the same time.  Act II opens with an awesome collection of foreign admirals shaking handsand saberswith the Shogun of Japan.  The caricaturizations, from the Japanese viewpoint, of the American, British, Dutch, Russian, and French powers is a delightful bit of balloon-bursting.

The employment of modified Kabuki techniques works to create a unique feeling of timelessness and agelessness.  The traditional costuming by Florence Klotz and the stylized sets by Boris Aronson lend the production an air of the subtle grace of Japan while the use of traditional make-up by Richard Allen creates an atmosphere of exoticism and remoteness.  Since Overtures is about the Japanese view of the opening of Japan, these qualities are most effective.  The opening, it appears, was a subject of fear and trembling and was more a case of “scratch my back or I’ll break yours!”  (The title carries a subtle, ironic double-entendre, meaning both the musical opening of the Pacific and, in Perry’s own use of the term, the “peaceful proposals” of trade with Japan.)

The musical numbers, ranging from quasi-traditional Japanese songs to near-vaudeville comedy routines (“Chrysanthemum Tea” and “Please Hello”) with a rousing indictment of neo-Japanese capitalism in “Next,” tell a story of sacred isolation (“The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”), xenophobia (“Four Black Dragons”), confusion (“Someone in a Tree”), and foreign contamination (“A Bowler Hat”).  Each is more exciting and intriguing than the previous one.  Had the intermission not given me time to come down, I might have suffered severe cardiac damage from over-stimulation.

The performances are uniformly superior with the notable exception of Mako, the reciter, or narrator of the story.  For some inexplicable reason, he made three major line flubs, one during the recitation of a haiku and one while singing “Please Hello.”  It could have been “one of those nights,” but it momentarily dampened my enthusiasm.

Jonathan Tunick’s use of traditional Japanese instruments and songs as incidental music is inspired and beautiful, Patricia Birch’s choreography, particularly the magnificent Lion Dance and the dancing of “Poems” and “Pretty Lady” is smooth and cool, like Mount Fuji viewed from a distance.  Of particular fascination for me were the masks and dolls (used to portray the emperor).

I congratulate Sondheim and Weidman on a landmark theatrical achievement.  It is truly a show I did not want to see end.

[The Sondheim Award gala at the Italian embassy on 7 April of this year featured an 18-piece orchestra and performances by Ron Raines (Follies, Show Boat), Heidi Blickenstaff ([title of show], Meet John Doe) and Pamela Myers (Company, Into the Woods), among others.  Heidi Blickenstaff, readers of ROT may recall, played Cleo, the best friend of Rosabella, in the Encores! concert of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, on which I reported here on 10 April.]

1 comment:

  1. On 9 February, the "Arts, Briefly," column of the New York Times "Arts" section included an item entitled "Stephen Sondheim to Receive PEN Literary Award" by Andrew R. Chow. Below is an excerpt of the announcement from the on-line version, posted on 8 February:

    "Stephen Sondheim has been awarded the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award — making him the first composer-lyricist to win it.

    "The prize is given annually to a 'critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition,' according to PEN America's news release. While the prize has mostly gone to novelists, including Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, Mr. Sondheim has made an undeniable impact on the last 60 years of culture by writing musicals including 'West Side Story,' 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Company.'

    ". . . .

    "'Stephen Sondheim has really given voice to complex aspects of the human spirit: to nuance, to psychology, to inner voices,' Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, said in a phone interview. 'His work points to the significance of living a moral life, and that's never felt more urgent than right now.'

    Mr. Sondheim will be honored by PEN on April 25 at the American Museum of Natural History, with Meryl Streep presenting the prize. She starred in the 2014 film adaptation of Mr. Sondheim’s 'Into the Woods,' and received an Oscar nomination for her role.

    "This weekend Mr. Sondheim's work will be back on Broadway, with a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Sunday in the Park with George' starring Jake Gyllenhaal. And he's working on a new musical inspired by the works of Luis Buñuel, tentatively slated to arrive at the Public Theater sometime this year.

    ". . . ."