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Theatre / Pacific Overtures

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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.

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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.


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Examples of tropes appearing in Pacific Overtures:

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    Tropes A-M 
  • Appeal to Tradition: Deconstructed. It is precisely Japan's clinging to ancient traditions that makes it so vulnerable to the militarised Western powers which are forcing it to modernise.
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game: At the end of the play, Japan stops trying to resist Western influence and instead vows to out-do the West as a major imperial / industrial power.
    "Who's the stronger, who's the faster? / Let the pupil show the master / Next!"
  • 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.
  • Category Traitor: Manjiro accuses Kayama of being this at the end of the play, when the latter has become used to Western luxuries and has stopped trying to defend his own country's traditions.
  • Counterpoint Duet: The climax of "Please Hello" is an impressively chaotic counterpoint quintet, as each of the five Admirals overwhelm poor Abe with their simultaneous demands.
  • Dance Party Ending: The ending song Next has all the characters dancing around wildly, presumably because they're so happy about Japan becoming an economic powerhouse.
  • 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.
  • Distant Finale: The final song "Next" fast-forwards from the late 1860s right up to the present day, to show what has become of Japan's modernisation and opening up to the West.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Pacific" (the ocean and the adjective) and "Overture" (the diplomatic approach and the musical form). The phrase was taken from a letter written by Admiral Perry.
  • Driven to Suicide: Tamate.
  • Duet of Differences: A beautiful and creative example in "Poems", where Kayama and Manjiro take it in turns to compose short poems in praise of their greatest loves - for Kayama, his wife Tamate (and the traditional Japan she represents); for Manjiro, America (and the modernisation it represents). Also doubles as a Friendship Song, as the two of them bond over the exchange of ideas.
  • Eagleland: Strictly Type B (or the 19th Century equivalent); the Americans are portrayed as loud, boorish, ignorant, aggressive barbarians.
  • Exact Words: The sacred laws forbid any foreigners from "setting foot on Japanese soil". The shogunate preserve Japanese honour by having the Americans walk on grass mats covering the ground.
  • Expy: The British Admiral's verse of "Please Hello" is a deliberate nod to "The Major-General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance.
  • Foreshadowing: In "Chrysanthemum Tea", when the Shogun's Mother casually mentions that the Shogun had his own father strangled. It explains why she, in turn, has been poisoning him with the tea.
  • Flaunting Your Fleets: "Please Hello" (though the actual fleets are offstage).
  • Geisha: The common Western misunderstanding that geisha are some kind of prostitute forms the basis of a song, "Pretty Lady".
  • 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.
  • Gunboat Diplomacy: The musical!
  • Head-Tiltingly Kinky: Whatever erotic acts are being depicted on the fans that the Madam shows to her trainee concubines in "Welcome to Kanagawa":
    "That you have to bend for -
    Can you see why?
    That you need a friend for -
    Still, you might try ..."
  • Horny Sailors: There's a whole song about young prostitutes being trained to appeal to sailors, as well as a trio in which three English sailors hunger for a young Japanese woman they glimpse in a garden ("I've sailed the world for you...").
  • Kabuki Sounds: Used throughout the show.
  • Kimono Fanservice: Invoked by the Madam and her girls in "Welcome to Kanagawa".
  • Knight Templar: Manjiro and the Lords of the South. They are determined to free Japan of Westerners and their collaborators at any cost. The Emperor eventually has to rein them in.
  • Leitmotif: Sondheim's first major use of the technique in one of his Broadway scores. There are distinct recurring motifs that are used to represent Japanese prayer, the four black gunships, the Americans, the haiku, and the negotiations between Japan and the West, to name but a few.
  • Meaningful Rename: The Reciter's final line:
    "Nippon. The Floating Kingdom. There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here, but that was long ago ... Welcome to Japan."
  • Minor Character, Major Song: Most of the score, because while it does have a plot, the show is more of a historical revue than a traditional book musical.
  • Mood Whiplash: Kayama and Manjiro sing a light-hearted, friendly duet as they travel together. Then Kayama arrives home and discovers his wife has committed suicide in his absence. Then the Madam and her girls enter and sing the slyly dirty song "Welcome to Kanagawa".
  • Musical Pastiche: The whole score is written in a style that fuses traditional Japanese music with Sondheim's own sensibilities. More specifically, the American and British sections of "Please Hello" are a pastiche of John Philip Sousa and Arthur Sullivan, respectively.

    Tropes N-Z 
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: On the OBC recording, the three cockney sailors (portrayed by Asian American actors) singing "Pretty Lady". Perhaps justified, because all portrayals of Westerners in the show are meant to be grotesques.
  • Opening Chorus: "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea".
  • Promoted to Scapegoat: Poor Kayama. The Shogun's councillors appoint him Prefect of Police of Uraga ... in order to lumber him with the impossible task of turning away the American warships.
  • 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...
  • The Reveal: A minor one at the end of "Chrysanthemum Tea". The Shogun's Mother has been poisoning the Shogun with said tea.
  • Samurai: Both Kayama and (later on) Manjiro hold this rank.
  • Setting Introduction Song: "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" introduces us to life in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate, as it was before Admiral Perry arrived.
  • 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.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "Pretty Lady" is the most beautiful song in the show, but it's sung by three British sailors who are trying to pressure a young Japanese girl into having sex with them.
  • Take a Third Option: If the Americans are allowed to land, they will violate Japan's most sacred laws; if they aren't allowed to land, they will open fire on Uraga. Kayama and Manjiro's solution is to receive the Americans at Kanagawa, a cove small enough for the beach to be covered with mats, so that no foreigner actually sets foot on Japanese soil.
  • Tempting Fate: After the Americans leave, seemingly forever, Lord Abe gloats "Goodbye Americans! Come back in 250 years!" Cue the American Admiral (and more) parading before Abe.
  • Boke and Tsukkomi Routine: The madame is the tsukkomi to one of the prostitutes, the boke. She messes up all her attempts at seduction, earning her a whack from the madame's fan.
  • Translation by Volume: the Act 1 scene beneath the bow of Admiral Perry's ship.
  • 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
    • Berserk Button: "Don't touch the coat!"
    • 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.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Tamate (even though she is traditionally portrayed by a man). She reappears as a symbol of this during the finale, "Next".

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