Pacific Overtures

Book by John Weidman, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, based on historical events in Japan. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The original Broadway production opened on 11 January 1976 and was directed by Harold Prince with choreography by Patricia Birch, running for 193 performances.

Synopsis and Musical Numbers

Pacific Overtures is about American influences on Japan and is told using elements of classical Asian theatrical performance styles like Kabuki and Noh. In 1853, Japan is peaceful. No foreigners threaten the traditions of her people, whose serene and dignified days are not plagued by costly wars and the threat of industrialisation (THE ADVANTAGES OF FLOATING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SEA). But President Fillmore, determined to open up trade with Japan, sends Commodore Perry across the Pacific, and, to the consternation of Lord Abe and the Shogun’s other Councillors, US warships have been sighted at Okinawa.

Kayama is appointed Prefect of the Police at Uraga to drive the Americans away. This news leaves Tamate, his wife, grief-stricken (THERE IS NO OTHER WAY). As a Fisherman, Merchant and other locals relate the sight of the FOUR BLACK DRAGONS roaring through the sea, an extravagant Oriental caricature of the USS Powhatan pulls into harbour. Commodore Perry announces that he must meet the Shogun within six days or else he will shell the city. Faced with this ultimatum, the Shogun takes to his bed. Exasperated by his indecision, his Mother poisons him with CHRYSANTHEMUM TEA.

With the Shogun dead, Kayama devises a plan by which the Americans, thanks to a covering of tatami mats and a raised Treaty House, can be received without having to set foot on Japanese soil. A technical distinction, perhaps, but an important one. He and his aide, the fisherman Manjiro, set off for Uraga, forging a band of friendship through the exchange of POEMS. However, events are moving beyond the control of the old order: the two men pass a Madam instructing her inexperienced girls in the art of seduction as they prepare to entertain the foreign devils (WELCOME TO KANAGAWA).

Commodore Perry and his men come ashore and, on their MARCH TO THE TREATY HOUSE, demonstrate their goodwill by offering such gifts as two bags of Irish potatoes and a copy of Owen’s “Geology of Minnesota”. The negotiations themselves are seen through the memory of an old man and his younger self – SOMEONE IN A TREE, watching silently as history changes course. Initially, it seems as if Kayama has won: the Americans depart in peace. But then the barbarian figure of Commodore Perry leaps out to perform a traditional Kabuki LION DANCE, which ends as a strutting, triumphalist, all-American cakewalk.

To the surprise of Lord Abe, the new Shogun, and Kayama, now Governor of Uraga, the Americans return to request formal trading arrangements with Japan (PLEASE HELLO). They are followed by a eloquent British Admiral, a clog-dancing Dutch Admiral, a gloomy Russian and a dandified Frenchman all vying for access to Japan’s markets. Manjiro continues to dress with painstaking slowness into ceremonial robes for the tea ritual, but Kayama is adopting the manners and dress of the newcomers, proudly displaying his new pocket watch, cutaway coat and A BOWLER HAT. But there are other less pleasant changes prompted by westernisation. Three British Sailors mistake a PRETTY LADY for a geisha. The girl cries for help and a Swordsman kills the fleeing sailors. Reporting on the situation to the Shogun, Kayama himself is killed by a cloaked assassin – his former friend, the fisherman Manjiro.

In the ensuing turmoil the puppet Emperor seizes the real power from the Shogun and vows that Japan will modernise itself. The country moves from one innovation to the NEXT!. The Imperial robes are removed layer by layer, revealing a T-shirt and black trousers. Contemporary Japan – the world of Toyota and Seiko, air pollution and contaminated beaches – is assembled.

Songs vut from this production include: PRAYERS, WE FLOAT and an alternate version of CHYSANTHEMUM TEA. The original title of FOUR BLACK DRAGONS was ALARMS. Song ideas that were considered for the show, but which were not written, include CIVILISATION and THE EMPEROR OF JAPAN.

Mini Gallery

Pacific Overtures Pacific Overtures Pacific Overtures Pacific Overtures

Purchases from

From left to right above: 1. Pacific Overtures 1976 Original Broadway Cast CD. 2. Pacific Overtures 1987 English National Opera Cast Highlights CD. 3. Pacific Overtures 2004 Broadway Revival Cast CD. 4. Pacific Overtures Script. 5. Pacific Overtures Vocal Score.


Japan Ring
Japan Ring by hakkodapowder
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