Hearing Stephen Sondheim's glorious score for PACIFIC OVERTURES (well, most of it), was like a breath of fresh air after a season of musicals with bland, forgettable music. There are sweeping, beautiful ballads ("There Is No Other Way" is one of Sondheim's best), and truly funny pastiches ("Please, Hello"). Every song is a jewel and, most amazing, every musical number is a self-contained mini-drama telling a story and defining characters. The show has a sweeping narrative but the score is like looking at a gallery of fine Japanese woodblocks, which can often in one image tell its own psychologically complex story. Every other show I have seen this season, with the possible exception of DEAR EVAN HANSEN and AMELIE, has worked too hard at ingratiating its audience, at winning us over. GROUNDHOG DAY and NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET almost exhaust you with their spectacle and constant movement, though Tim Minchin's score for the former has the best lyrics and some good tunes sprinkled in all that visual busyness. Sondheim's great musicals draw you in. They require the audience to participate intellectually and emotionally. I must mention, too, Jonathan Tunick's beautiful orchestrations. One can't help but think at times of the haunting, elegiac quality of Mahler's DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, which I am sure Sondheim had in mind when he wrote some of PACIFIC OVERTURES. I do not exaggerate in comparing PACIFIC OVERTURES with great works of art and music (anybody who knows me knows I adore Japanese woodblocks and Mahler). The score earns the comparison.
PACIFIC OVERTURES is the story of the Western incursions into "barbaric" Japan in the mid-19th century, told from the point of view of the Japanese, particularly a Shogun, a minor bureaucrat and a prisoner who has spent time in America. The show traces the elevation and cultural confusion of these men as personifications of what is happening to Japan itself. Director John Doyle, a leading advocate of the "less is more" school of direction, has pared a long show down to ninety minutes by cutting the book down to the bare essentials. In simplifying the narrative he has also, with Sondheim's permission, cut one excellent number, Chrysanthemum Tea." Those of us who love the score lament the loss of that witty musical mini-drama. It would have been better to have the complete score.
Doyle's production is simplicity itself. It is performed on a white transverse stage. The only furniture is one stool. The cast wears contemporary casual dress. A few pieces of Japanese fabric are used to turn actors into shoguns, women, emperors. There are only a few necessary props. In my experience, PACIFIC OVERTURES works best in such pared down productions rather than the spectacular original production directed by Harold Prince. I have never heard or seen "Someone in a Tree" better performed or sung. Kudos to Austin Ku and Thom Sesma.
The super-talented cast couldn't be better. The original production was all-male, but Doyle has added two women for the few female roles (men still play the prostitutes in "Welcome to Kanagawa"). Everyone sings beautifully and effectively executes Doyle's simple, ritualistic staging. The small band sounded like a full orchestra.
The revivals of PACIFIC OVERTURES and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE have been high points of my theatergoing year. Stephen Sondheim hasn't been actively composing new work for almost three decades now but he has left us some of the greatest scores in the history of American musical theater. Nothing now on Broadway comes close to his achievement. We were lucky this year to have two excellent revivals. Like the great operatic classics, Sondheim's work deserves to be revived regularly.