Chrysanthemum Tea, Mother sings:
To begin, if I may, my Lord,
I’ve no wish to remind you
But you’ll notice just behind you
There are ships in the bay,
They’ve been sitting there all-day
With a letter to convey
And they haven’t gone away
And there’s every indication
That they’re planning to stay, my Lord?
Pacific Overtures is an astonishingly powerful concept musical that opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on January 11, 1976. The plot centers around Commodore Perry’s first visit to Japan in 1853. Composer Stephen Sondheim described his work as “the most bizarre and unusual musical ever to be seen in a commercial setting.”
I’d flown back to New York from California in the spring of ’76 for a couple of quick meetings and had time to squeeze in just one Broadway show. I headed to the Winter Garden and have never regretted my choice.
I’ve learned over the years some shows can be made more personal—more profound—by way of seeing them alone. Pacific Overtures was one of them. I watched things I had no knowledge of, heard sounds I’d never heard, and lost all sense of current day, time, and place.
Yesterday, I discovered via filmedlivemusicals.com that on June 9, 1976, the matinee and evening performances of Pacific Overtures were filmed live at the Winter Garden by Herman Rush Productions. The musical was broadcast on Japanese television, making it the first Broadway musical to do so. The telecast was sponsored by Hal Prince and advertising agency McCann Erickson-Hakuhodo, and the full production is on YouTube. I just watched the 2-hour and 20-minute production, and nearly fifty years later, my heartbeat still goes wild at the beginning of the show to the sound of the hyoshigi. Grab some sake and enjoy the show!
The original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures (1976) was staged in Kabuki style, with men playing women’s parts and set changes made in full view of the audience by black-clad stagehands. It opened to mixed reviews and closed after six months despite being nominated for ten Tony Awards.