Pacific Overtures is one of the most fascinating of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. A concept musical about the westernization of imperial Japan in the 19th century, and its impact on Japanese culture and traditions is not your typical musical. Sondheim studied Eastern music for months, director Hal Prince adapted the styles of Kabuki theatre for the production in its design and staging. The results are mesmerizing. The show featured an almost all-male cast that included Mako, Yuki Shimodo (the original Ito in Auntie Mame!), Sab Shimino, Alvin Ing (who reprised his role for Roundabout) and Gedde Watanabe (later part of Sixteen Candles? Anyone?). The show opened in 1976 at the Winter Garden, where it ran for 193 performances. I saw the Roundabout revival, starring B.D. Wong. While I didn’t particularly care for that production on the whole, I was able to look past what I disliked to admire the brilliance in the writing of Sondheim and librettist John Weidman.
While the show boasts the ever-brilliant favorite of Sondheim, “Someone in a Tree,” I would have to admit that “Please, Hello” is my personal favorite song in the entire score. It’s mammoth 9 minute act two opener in which America, Britain, Holland, France and Russia are vying for detente with Japan. It’s a marvel of sophistication, historical accuracy, pastiche (each country is represented by a native musical style of the period) and vocal arrangement. The number was the highlight of the revival, bringing the show to a halt.
The original production was taped for broadcast on Japanese television, but has never been aired in the US. (Calling PBS!! Or Image Home Entertainment!)
Here is the original cast performing “Please, Hello.” Enjoy.