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 ominously, opening the feudal country to foreign trade and visitors for the first time in 250 years. Some of the Japanese resist the outside invasion, persisting in their 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 By the end of the play it is the present–and Japan's shoguns and emperors have been replaced by businessmen in three-piece suits.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 today the score is widely considered to be one of Sondheim's finest. Built around a quasi-Japanese pentatonic scale, the music contrasts Japanese contemplation ("There is No Other Way") with Western ingeniousness ("Please Hello," "Pretty Lady"). Sondheim has said that "Someone in a Tree," where three witnesses describe negotiations between Japanese and Americans, is his personal favorite of all the songs he's written. "A Bowler Hat" 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.
Pacific Overtures opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York on January 11, 1976, and closed after 193 performances on June 27, 1976. The original cast recording was released by RCA Records and later available on CD.
A major production of the show was mounted by the English National Opera in 1987. The production was recorded in its entirety, preserving nearly the entire libretto as well as the score.
A critically acclaimed 2001 Chicago Shakespeare Festival production of the show transferred to London's West End, where it received the 2003 Olivier Award for Best Musical Production.
A Broadway revival ran at Studio 54 from December, 2004 to January, 2005, starring B.D. Wong and several members of the original cast. A new Broadway recording, with new (reduced) orchestrations by Sondheim's oftentime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick was released by PS Classics, with additional material not included on the original cast album.
Original 1976 Cast