Pacific Overtures

Original Broadway Cast

1976: RCA RCD1-4407

  1. The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea
  2. There Is No Other Way
  3. Four Black Dragons
  4. Chrysanthemum Tea
  5. Poems
  6. Welcome to Kanagawa
  7. Someone in a Tree
  8. Please Hello
  9. A Bowler Hat
  10. Pretty Lady
  11. Next

It’s not Sondheim’s most boring score—that honor goes to Passion, ironically—but it’s a close second at many times.

“Next,” however, is pretty impressive when staged well. Specifically I have in mind one production whose staging of “Next,” posted on YouTube, introduced an especially effective interruption to the otherwise relentless push of the song: the atomic bomb (singular only in conceptual representation, of course). That touch was absolutely arresting in its effectiveness, symbolizing the sudden reset of Japan’s increasingly aggressive expansionism and territorial/cultural tyranny and the pause before Japan got itself together again but with a focus on industry and not regional conquest—a reset I think is well worth including in such a presentation of Japan’s historically intense growth and presence. Plus it provides a perhaps-needed rebuke to the lyrics’ cynical acknowledgment of those subjugated by Japan in its early 20th century rampages: “(Going under, what a pity!) Next!”

Sondheim has an interesting observation about that song’s title, in his endlessly fascinating book Finishing the Hat: “Next is the perfect word for a song which deals with the apocalyptic effect of Western cultures, especially contemporary Western cultures blasting open a serene, self-contained society that had existed snugly and smugly for centuries. ‘Next!’ is an onomotopoeic blast if there ever was one.”

He didn’t happen to mention how that term or expression sounds in Japanese, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Why is it I characterize this as being so boring? Because it lacks drama. Its drama is inherently abstract—factual and objective. Aspects of dramatization are used to try to enliven it—personalizing (for example) Kayama as character who develops across a span of years in the space of one song (“A Bowler Hat”)—but if the listener/audience doesn’t get a gripping buy-in to that character to start with, such material is just academic exercise…and that’s how it lands with me: over there somewhere in Theoryville. Well-meant and probably finely crafted but inherently unengaging.