Pacific Overtures was an ambitious 1976 musical by Stephen Sondheim, with a libretto by John Weidman, and additional material by Hugh Wheeler, set in 1853 Japan. Four Western ships arrive omniously, opening the feudal country for the first time in 250 years. Some of the Japanese resist the outside invasion, reverting to ancient feudal tradition, while others embrace the Westerners and assimiliate. Commodore Perry arrives and the Convention of Kanagawa is negotiated. By the end of the play it is 1976 -- and Japan's shoguns and emperors have been replaced by businessmen in three-piece suits.
The play was presented in Kabuki style, with men playing women's parts and set changes made in full view of the audience by men dressed in black. "Pacific Overtures" opened to mixed reviews and closed after six months, yet the score remains one of Sondheim's finest. Built around a quasi-Japanese pentatonic scale, the music contrasts the Japanese passivity ("There is No Other Way") with Western ingeniousness ("Please Hello," "Pretty Lady"). Sondheim has said that "Someone in a Tree," where three witnesses describe negotations between Japanese and Americans, is the most favorite of the songs he's written. "A Bowler Hat" also neatly encapsulates the show's theme, as a samurai gradually sells out to the Westerners. Weidman wrote an underrated libretto, telling the massive story from the points of view of two Japanese men, a samurai and a fisherman.
The title of the play is ironic, nodding toward "overture" as a musical form, and archly noting that the initiatives of the Western powers for commercial exploitation of the Pacific nation were anything but pacific overtures.
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