Pacific Overtures

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg
Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will
Lighting Design by Karen Perlow
Production Stage Manager: Nerys Powell
Assistant Stage Manager: Geena M. Forristall

Season sponsored by Barry Bluestone, Lee and Diana Humphrey, and

Production sponsored by Ronald Sudol & the estate of Toni-Lee Capossela
Director Spiro Veloudos sponsored by Glenda & Bob Fishman
Music Director sponsored by Jo-An Heileman
Music sponsored by Richard Rousseau
Costumes sponsored by Richard & Sally Zeckhauser

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Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan through gunboat diplomacy forges an unlikely friendship between the samurai, Kayama, and the Americanized fisherman, Manjiro. The two of them – and all of Japanese society – must face the wave of Westernization that follows.  Spiro Veloudos puts a cap on his multi-year Sondheim Initiative with this startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece.

“Mr. Sondheim’s songs are complete miniature dramas, loaded and compressed to a profound intensity.” – New York Times

Act I

Conceived as a Japanese playwright’s version of an American musical about American influences on Japan, Pacific Overtures opens on July 1853. Since the foreigners were driven from the island empire, explains the Reciter, there has been nothing to threaten the changeless cycle of their days. Elsewhere, wars are fought and machines are rumbling but in Nippon they plant rice, exchange bows and enjoy peace and serenity. President Millard Fillmore, determined to open up trade with Japan, has sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry across the Pacific.

To the consternation of Lord Abe and the Shogun’s other Councillors, the stirrings of trouble begin with the appearance of Manjiro, a fisherman who was lost at sea and rescued by Americans. He returns to Japan and attempts to warn Abe of the presence of warships in the waters around Okinawa, but is instead arrested for consorting with foreigners. A minor samurai, Kayama Yesaemon, is appointed Prefect of the Police at Uraga to drive the Americans away – news which leaves his wife Tamate grief-stricken, since Kayama will certainly fail. As a Fisherman, a Thief, 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 harbor. Kayama is sent to meet with the Americans but he is rejected as not important enough. He enlists the aid of Manjiro, the only man in Japan who has dealt with Americans, and disguised as a great lord, Manjiro gets an answer from them: Commodore Perry announces that he must meet the Shogun within six days or else he will shell the city. Facing this ultimatum, the Shogun refuses to commit himself to an answer and takes to his bed. Exasperated by his indecision, his Mother, with elaborate courtesy, poisons him.

With the Shogun dead, Kayama devises a plan by which the Americans can be received without technically setting foot on Japanese soil, thanks to a covering of tatami mats and a raised Treaty House. He and Manjiro set off for Uraga. Kayama has saved Japan, but it is too late to save Tamate. He returns home to find her dead from seppuku.

Commodore Perry and his men disembark and 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 observed through the memories of three who were there: a warrior who could hear the debates from his hiding place beneath the floor of the Treaty House, a young boy who could see the action from his perch in the tree outside, and the boy as an old man recalling that without a silent watcher history is incomplete. Initially, it seems as if Kayama has won; the Americans depart in peace. But the barbarian figure of Commodore Perry leaps out to perform a traditional Kabuki “Lion Dance”, which ends as a strutting, triumphalist, all-American cakewalk.

Act II

The child emperor reacts with pleasure to the departure of the Americans, promoting Lord Abe to Shogun, Kayama to Governor of Uraga and Manjiro to the rank of Samurai. The crisis appears to have passed, but to the surprise of Lord Abe the Americans return to request formal trading arrangements. To the tune of a Sousa march, an American ambassador bids “Please Hello” to Japan and is followed by a Gilbertian British ambassador, a clog-dancing Dutchman, a gloomy Russian and a dandified Frenchman all vying for access to Japan’s markets. With this new western threat, the faction of the Lords of the South grow restless. They send a politically charged gift to the Emperor, a storyteller who tells a vivid, allegorical tale of a brave young emperor who frees himself from his cowardly Shogun.

Fifteen years pass as Kayama and Manjiro dress themselves for tea. As Manjiro continues to dress in ceremonial robes for the tea ritual, Kayama gradually adopts the manners, culture, and dress of the newcomers, proudly displaying a new pocket watch, cutaway coat and “A Bowler Hat”. But there are other less pleasant changes prompted by westernization. Three British Sailors mistake the daughter of a samurai for a geisha (“Pretty Lady”). Though their approach is initially gentle, they grow more persistent to the point where they offer her money (with insinuations of rape); the girl cries for help and her father kills one of the confused Tars. Reporting on the situation to the Shogun, Kayama witnesses Lord Abe’s murder by cloaked assassins and himself is killed by one of their number – his former friend, Manjiro.

In the ensuing turmoil the puppet Emperor seizes real power and vows that Japan will modernize itself. As the country moves from one innovation to the next, the Imperial robes are removed layer by layer to show the Reciter in modern dress. Contemporary Japan– the country of Toyota and Seiko, air pollution and market domination –assembles itself around him. “There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago…” he says, “Welcome to Japan.”



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May 10 — June 16
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