Bringing Japan and its traditions to Signature’s ‘Pacific Overtures’


The Stephen Sondheim musical “Pacific Overtures” preserves moments that aren’t so Pacific, not least samurai warfare. One afternoon before the company’s current production opened, fight director Yoshi Amao was overseeing a run-through of the sequence at the Signature Theater.

In the rehearsal room, the actors fueled the conflict: ambushes, murders and mayhem in 19th-century Japan. In a thrilling twist, the battle turns into a clash between two friends, turned enemies. One of them, in a fight choreography devised by Amau, is a more aggressive and fiery fighter, wielding his sword while jumping. The other is less alert and more anxious.

In a later interview, Amao explained that he choreographed the sequence not only to reflect the characters’ emotions — “old friends should feel something,” he says — but also their Westernization and socialization. Also attitudes towards status: the less skilled fighter was Westernized. And let his samurai skills take over. The flashy fighter had practiced them, partially compensating for his background background.

“Always in the Japanese samurai world, level—high level, low level—was important,” says Amao, referring to social status.

An expert in imaou, tete, or Japanese theatrical sword fighting, is one of the authorities on traditional Japanese art contributing to this production of “Pacific Overtures,” the 1976 work that is Sondheim’s most famous. Not included in produced musicals. Also on the creative team: Kirk Kaniska, a kabuki consultant, and Mark H. Rooney, a consultant on Japanese taiko drumming.

Given our time’s appreciation for cultural authenticity, finding the right experts in Japanese traditions was a “high priority,” says director Ethan Hurd, who, like the creative team and the entire cast, is of Asian heritage. At the same time, he says, the show demands a balanced process. This is not a Japanese show. It is an American musical. So how do you tie them together to make it the most powerful?

Co-written by composer/lyricist Sondheim and book writer John Weidman, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, “Overtures” tells of Japan’s experience wrestling with isolationist sentiment, and, subsequently, an American expedition. which in 1853 attempted to forcefully open the island kingdom. The story is told in a style that reflects the Japanese perspective, in which the crudeness of Western imperialists is often contrasted with the sophistication and refinement of Japanese culture.

The writers borrowed and adapted conventions from kabuki, a popular Japanese theater form: the show’s sometimes narrator-like reciting figure (Jason Ma) is an example. So not surprisingly, the signing recruited Kanesaka, a Japanese-American actor and professor who, according to George Mason University Faculty PageHe is the first non-Japanese citizen to become a professional kabuki actor since the birth of the form four centuries ago.

for the signature production — which joins other Sondheim stagings in the region and nation. Musician/lyricist death in 2021 – Kanesaka’s work includes teaching the cast on kabuki-inspired physicality. In this movement mode, even walking has its nuances. A courtesan’s gait, for example, “will be very different from a merchant’s wife,” Kanesaka says. “A samurai would then be very different from how a merchant would operate.”

He has also coached the cast on how to operate the fans and how to kneel while wearing the kimono (move the right knee first, as the kimono wraps from right to left).

“It’s not about trying to make it an authentic kabuki movement or drama,” he says, “but giving the actors and actresses the words they can develop” to “make a fusion of Eastern and Western performance.” “Beautiful hybrids” can be made.

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A local artist of Japanese and Scottish heritage, Ronnie also adopted a hybrid approach when devising the production’s taiko sequences, aiming to heighten the intensity and immerse the audience in time and space.

He uses some primitive taiko rhythms in the sequence, which are separate from the show’s musical numbers. But he also adds some relatively unusual time signatures “that pay a little tribute to the virtuosity of Sondheim’s music”, he says.

Adding to the drama of the taiko is the special drum used in the production: a six-foot-tall instrument that, Rooney says, may be the largest odaiko ever. (Big Taiko) on the east coast. (It’s from a friend of his.) The production’s associate music director, Angie Benson, will play the instrument in the production, and Rooney has given her tips.

“Taiko is often referred to as full-body drumming,” Rooney says. “And to get big drumming sounds, it really requires your right stance, using your core.”

Hurd says Rooney, Kanesaka and Umao have given intangibles as well as technique. “Actors see and feel them in the room and can absorb a lot of information from their presence,” says the director. “Because these traditions are an aura. It’s not just skill. It’s also how you breathe, the silence, the listening.

Amao, a Japanese artist based in New York, agrees that he has given instructions on attitude as well as how-to. On the practical front, during rehearsals, he corrected the way an actor held a sword, later explaining that in the Edo period, often described as 1603-1868, a samurai would normally hold a sword. held the blade up, not the blade down.

This practical pointer complements a mindset he says he tries to convey when teaching Tate. The swords used in production are made of wood, but neutral handling of them – for example stepping on them – is not.

“I always tell people: respect the sword,” says Amao. “The sword is the soul of the Japanese. It is your treasure. It is your essence.”

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771.

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