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Pacific Overtures is a 1976 historical musical about how America used warships to forced Japans borders open to trade in 1854. Soon, the little feudal island was overrun with Yankee, Brits, French, Dutch, and Russian traders. In 130 years after this invasion, Japan modernized, attacked us in WWII, and then slowly became our economic partner.It’s a great idea for a musical. In fact, Japan has a rich history of theater that Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman pulled many ideas from. That might be the problem – warm, brassy Broadway and quiet, formal Japanese theater are two different beasts.Kabuki – which is used throughout Pacific Overtures – is a theater of show, high style, and alienation, not of deep character revelation or emotional outpouring. Broadway shows – and especially the songs – are about letting people into the human heart in expansive ways. That’s why Japan didn’t ever have the great stage ballad – not then, not now – that the world accepted as a standard, Japan has thousands of years of theater history to cull from; yet, this never happened. Their theater is cold, presentational, and removed, and the songs they attached to their works also exemplified this.It’s cool. It just doesn’t gel with the a style that includes Gypsy, Avenue Q, and Sweeney Todd.Pacific Overtures shows all those strict Japanese qualities, despite Weidman’s writing being adjustable to a more modern, intimate style. In fact, I’d love to see some of these brilliant scenes done without the artifice of kabuki.Sondheim’s music mostly follows kabuki’s cold, distant lead, even though some of it is exceptionally wonderful, showy stuff. “Please Hello” – when all the traders come to get their contracts negotiated for better deals – is brilliantly funny. Each country- the US, England, France, the Netherlands, and Russia – sings in their stereotypical musical style. “Welcome to Kanagawa,” where a madam tries to keep her house going despite all her best girls having fled the foreigners – is classic. Even more frigid fare – “Chrysanthemum Tea” – where a widow pushes her shogun son to deal with the foreigners – is clever if a bit too formal.The emotional part of the story concerns two men who become unlikely friends. A local Japanese man is promoted and forced to manage the foreigners. A fisherman lost at sea and educated in Boston becomes an unlikely emissary to his country, and later a samurai. They have to work together to supervise the foreign operations, but their lives take them on totally different paths. There is a humanism to these stories that is harmed by traditional Japanese formalism.This is the sort of structure that inspired Brecht – it creates alienation.Besides that, the musical is all pastiche – told in fragments and chunks, skipping around. Especially the second act uses montage at the forsaking of emotional arc. We flit all over Japan, only getting to know most characters for a single scene. The script asks for an all-Japanese, mostly male crew, making it nearly impossible to produce.All of this is in the name of mixing two styles, Broadway and kabuki. It’s a bit like mixing pudding and gravel – sometimes things just don’t work together.

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