Theatre / Pacific Overtures

The practical bird
having no tree of its own
borrows another's

Pacific Overtures is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, with additional material from Hugh Wheeler. It tells the story of Japanese westernisation in the 19th century, focused partly through the lives of young samurai Kayama and fisherman Manjiro. The style of the show is a mix of Japanese theatrical traditions and Broadway conventions; the conceit of the show's style is that it might have been written by a Japanese who has been exposed to a lot of American musicals.

The play begins with the reciter commenting on Japan's peaceful and unchanging way of life. However, President Fillmore wishes to trade with the Japanese, and thus sends warships to the shores of Okinawa. The Americans arrive, give generous donations and leave. This paves the road to more and more trade with foreign powers, resulting in Japan becoming more and more western. Eventually, the Emperor Meiji decides to seize control and officially modernise Japan.

The show opened to mixed reviews and is very rarely performed (mostly due to its unconventional, experimental nature, and the requirement of a large cast of Asian men) but is considered one of Sondheim's most underrated works.

Examples of tropes appearing in Pacific Overtures:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Japan springs, thriving into the twentieth century, but at the cost of centuries of culture. In the end, Kayama is slain by Manjiro, the former friends having totally reversed their respective views on westerners and industrialization over the course of Act 2.
    • Though Manjiro, and the Lords of the South succeed overthrowing the Shogunate, and reinstating the Emperor, their goal of driving out the foreigners and their influence on Japan is unsuccessful.
  • Black Comedy: Much of the humor, particularly the sequence where a Shogun's mother poisons her son with tea because she's sick of his inactivity against the American fleet.
  • Book Ends: The reciter opens and closes the show with the line "Nippon: The Floating Kingdom", showing how much the nation has changed over the course of the play.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Reciter, at times.
    "Yes, please ignore the man of war / that's anchored rather near to shore / it's nothing but a metaphor / that acts as a preventative."
  • Deconstruction: Of the sort of East-meets-West story best represented by The King and I.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Pacific" (the ocean and the adjective) and "Overture" (the diplomatic approach and the musical form).
  • Driven to Suicide: Tamate.
  • Flaunting Your Fleets: "Please Hello" (though the actual fleets are offstage).
  • Gender Bender: Following Kabuki tradition, all womens' parts are played by men at the start of the play. The female cast members gradually start to appear in Act 2, to signal Japan's new era.
    • Some productions, like the 2004 Broadway revival, are more lenient, however.
  • Opening Chorus: "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea"
  • Puppet King: Emperor of Japan, when the real power was wielded by the Shogun, is literally played by a Bunraku puppet.
  • Race Lift: Both ways. Traditionally, all roles in the show, even the Western characters are played by actors of Asian descent. When the English National Opera performed and recorded it, however...
  • Shout-Out: In the opening, the Reciter sings of far off lands where, among other things, women are being praised, which is arguably a Shout-Out to "In Praise of Women" from Sondheim's previous musical A Little Night Music.
  • Troperiffic: "Please Hello" tries to utilize as many Western tropes as it can to make it stand out in the otherwise Eastern show. The number alone includes:
    • American Accents: The American Admiral is expected to give an exaggerated one.
    • Camp: The admirals act like this to clash with the secluded dignity of the Japanese.
    • Engrish: Inverted. While the Japanese characters all speak in elegant, formalized King's English throughout, the foreign admirals in this song speak in a pidgin form of their native language for comic effect.
    • Funny Foreigner
    • Husky Russkie: The Russian Admiral.
    • Overly Long Gag: "Don't touch the coat!"
    • Patter Song: The British Admiral's part.
    • Shown Their Work: The whole show can be credited with this (despite a few intentional deviations from fact, esp. the murder in "Chrysanthemum Tea"), but "Please Hello" deserves special mention for being completely historically accurate in the order of the ambassadors' arrivals and in the specifics of each country's demands.
    • Spot of Tea: The British Admiral offers this.
    • Take That!: The British Admiral's part was one directed at W. S. Gilbert.

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