Actors remember Pacific Overtures
By Wayman Wong
In January 1976, Pacific Overtures did what U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry did in Japan in 1853. It broke new ground.
The show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman offered much more than "cups of tea and history" as it told the story of Perry's visit to Japan and its repercussions. Directed by Hal Prince and told from the "Japanese" point of view, the musical featured an all-Asian-American cast, a first. And it wasn't afraid to say Noh to Japanese theater; it incorporated theatrical Kabuki and Bunraku traditions as its story unfolded like a delicate origami crane. Given its unconventional subject, staging and score, Pacific Overtures was lauded by some critics ("a brilliant triumph of sophistication, taste and craft"--Howard Kissel) and lambasted by others ("dull and immobile"--Walter Kerr). Even so, the New York Drama Critics Circle chose it as the best musical of the season. However, it was nearly shut out at the Tonys by a Chorus Line sweep, and it closed after 193 performances on Broadway. But it went on to play Los Angeles and San Francisco that fall, winning converts in the West.
What must it have been like to work on Pacific Overtures more than twenty years ago? Though the musical's creators have given their own official version, the Asian-American
official version, the Asian-American actors have seldom been quoted anywhere, not even in Craig Zadan's superb book Sondheim & Co. The Sondheim Review tracked down three of its leads--Mako, Soon-Tek Oh and Sab Shimono--and asked them to give their own authentic account of what took place on that historic show.
Mako won rave reviews and a Tony Award nomination (Best Actor in a Musical) for his Broadway debut as the Reciter in Pacific Overtures. A decade earlier he had received an Oscar nomination for his role as Po-Han, the engine-room coolie in The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen. Born in Kobe, Japan, Mako (whose real name is Makoto Iwamatsu) came to the United States in the late 1940s and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. He later co-founded the East West Players, the critically acclaimed Asian-American theater in Los Angeles, where he shared the stage with such fellow Pacific Overtures alumni as Soon-Tek Oh, Sab Shimono and Yuko Shimoda (who died in 1985). His extensive movie credits include Seven Years in Tibet, The Wash (co-starring Shimono) and Tucker.
TSR (The Sondheim Review): How did you first become involved with Pacific Overtures?
Mako: It was a legit play at first, so Hal Prince held auditions in '73, '74. About a year later, I heard it was going to be turned into a musical. I'm not really a trained singer and I had never done a musical, but when I auditioned, I did "Ol' Man River."
TSR: What was it like to work on your first musical, and a Sondheim musical at that?
Mako: I had no idea how difficult Sondheim's music would be. All through the rehearsals, I kept flubbing. There were so many tempo changes. I could never get through the opening number without any mistakes. One day, I went up to
Hal Prince and offered to leave the show. He laughed it off. He said, "Don't be silly. That's why we have tryouts." (Pacific Overtures tried out in Boston and Washington, D.C., before opening on Broadway.) The New York opening was really the first time I made it through "The Advantages of
Floating in the Middle of the Sea" without any major mistakes. I gave it my all and I loved the challenge.
TSR: How was it to work with Hal Prince?
Mako: Very easy. He trusted me and I trusted him. Even though John Weidman wrote it, Hal said, "We're approaching this show as if a Japanese writer wrote it." I said, "If I see a problem, can I bring it up to you?" He said, "By all means." I did have one major problem with the book, though. There was a short scene that referred to World War II, but it got eliminated, and so was Japan's defeat and the atomic explosion. Those events had such a phenomenal impact on Japan, physically and psychologically. Hal said he didn't want to alienate American audiences with something that they really didn't know anything about.
TSR: Back then, Asians rarely got cast in musicals, so the talent pool must have been small. Were you pleased that Prince fought for an all-Asian-American ensemble?
Mako: Absolutely. No matter what happens, we couldn't let people say Asian-American actors can't act.
TSR: Do you recall running into any racism?
Mako: I remember we went to the Tony Awards to do a number from the show and we got there by bus. But after the show, we had to walk back to the Winter Garden to get out of our costumes. As we were walking, and some of us were in Kabuki makeup, some of the people on the street were yelling, "Hey, why don't you all go back to China?" On the one hand, we felt we were making progress in the theater, but socially we were getting comments like that.
TSR: What was it like to work with Sondheim?
Mako: Maybe because I was a nonmusical person, he gave me a special leeway. He spoke to me without any arrogance or attitude. He was trying to be the best teacher he could be and I tried to be the best student. I respected him tremendously.
TSR: Before you did Pacific Overtures, had you seen much Japanese theater?
Mako: Yes, I had seen Kabuki and Noh a number of times back in Japan, so I drew on my memory of it to help create the Reciter's role. In Kabuki, there is a "naga uta," who is in essence a reciter. He basically explains the dances and sings and chants. And in Noh theater, the actors seldom
talk, so there is a "gidayu," who explains the story and fills the gaps. What we did with the Reciter's role was a combination of the two.
TSR: The Reciter is reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Our Town, in that he narrates and takes part in the story. Does that happen in Kabuki and Noh, too?
Mako: No. But in Pacific Overtures I enjoyed also playing the Shogun and Jonathan Goble because it was a relief for my legs. You see, I sat so long on that stage (as the Reciter) that I later got calluses where I never had
TSR: For your part, you were nominated for a Tony. What did you think about your chances of winning?
Mako: I had run into (newspaper columnist) Earl Wilson and he told me that he had inside information that I was going to win. I said, "Come on!" I didn't place that much emphasis on the outcome, except I was renting a floor
from Jerry Orbach, who had a brownstone, and he was also nominated for Best Actor in a Musical (for Chicago). I thought Jerry would win. I didn't care for myself. If I got it, I'd have to get up and give a speech. Stanley Holloway and Ian Richardson were also nominated for My Fair Lady, but that was a revival, so I didn't think they stood a chance. But Stanley won. Anyway, I got home late, about 2:30 in the morning. At about 4:30, I heard Jerry Orbach shouting from the floor below, "Hey, Mako! What the f--- happened? I can't believe it; we lost to a f------ revival!"
TSR: If you had won, what would you have said?
Mako: I wasn't going to accept it. I was going to refuse the Tony. Why? Asian-American actors have never been treated as full-time actors. We're always hired as part-timers. That is, (producers) call us when they need us
(for only race-specific roles). If a part was seen as too "demanding," that part often went to a non-Asian. I refused to piggyback off the success of Pacific Overtures. If the audience wished to boo me, fine. I would've thanked the people I worked with, but I didn't feel I could accept the award as long as Asian-Americans were not treated (as equals) in our profession.
TSR: Speaking of the Tony telecast, the cast performed "The Advantages of Floating" there. What do you recall about it?
Mako: Because of our placement in the show, we already knew most of the major awards had gone to A Chorus Line. I was really furious at how we were neglected. Before we went on stage, I said to the cast, "Well, the verdict has been handed out. Does that mean we're losers? Hell, no! We're gonna
give it our best, so get your butts in gear!" And we did.
TSR: Where does Pacific Overtures rank among your credits?
Mako: It's one of the highlights I cherish most. It altered my view of musicals and expanded my idea of theater.
Source: The Sondheim Review
Talk on California & Kagoshima
[Edited: I cut out the other guests' answers and have only included Mako's responses. For the entire story, check out the link at the end of the article.]
To celebrate centenary of Nanka Kagoshima Kenjinkai, Minaminippon Shimbun held " Talk on california and Kagoshima" at Hotel New Otani in Los Angeles. From Nanka Kagoshima Kenjinkai, five members attended as speakers and
seven joined as observers. Under the chairmanship of Yuji Kuwahara, the editor in chief, speakers talked about the communication with the homeland, Kagoshima, and the rospects of the activities of Nanka Kagoshima Kenjinkai.
President of Nanka Kagoshima Kenjinkai
Mr. Fumio Nakama
Chairman of Heritage Club
Ms. Shoko Miyauchi
Chairman of The Board International Farmers Association
Mr. Keishiro Uchida
President of FAX MAINICHI U.S.A.Inc.
Mr. Hiroshi Yamaguchi
Mr. Mako Iwamatsu
Between two countries
Kuwahara: From the Meiji era to postwar, Kagoshima Prefecture had one of the largest number of emigrations. However, the history of emigrants from Kagoshima was never formally researched. From a standpoint as the first and the second generations, would you please talk about difficulties you overcame?
Iwamatsu: It has been fifty years since I moved to America where my parents were. When I was a student at a high school in New York and started getting used to the life in the U.S, my father (Mr. Taro Yashima) scolded me once. Since I showed no interest in Japanese language, my father yelled at me pounding a table, "Language is one of people's properties. When you forget it, you will not be qualified as a human being."
His words woke me up. I realized the importance of language and established myself as an actor. In 1952, I was drafted for Korean War. During WWII, I confronted with the war fire in Japan. I used to curse my life and bad luck experiencing war twice.
The future activities of Nanka Kagoshima Kenjinkai and Kagoshima
Kuwahara: We would like to talk about prospects of activities of Nanka Kagoshima Kenjinkai and relationship with Kagoshima.
Iwamatsu: At Kenjinkai, we feel free to talk about difficulty we had to face and something we are proud of. In this way, Kenjinkai is functioning as it is supposed to be. To take further steps, we may be able to work on the preservation and protection of our culture. For example, the stone bridges in Kagoshima City were removed a few years ago. If my father was still alive, he would be very angry and would directly go to Kagoshima to say, "Why could you do such a thing?" At the situation like this, I believe that, as a grass root group, our Association, Kenjinkai should work on such preservation activities.
Introduction of speakers
Mr. Mako Iwamatsu: Born in Kobe City in December 10, 1933. His father
is the late Mr. Taro Yashima, an artist from Nejime Town, Kimotsuki County. Immigrated to the U.S. in 1949. After joining the military at Korean War, aspired to become an actor. To obtain oriental actor's better recognition, established the East West Players in 1965. With his splendid act as a coolie in a movie, "The Sand Pebbles", nominated to an Academy award in 1966. Lives in Somis.
Source: The Minami-Nippon Shimbun
[Excerpt of the following interview: Aaron Brinkley, BladeZone News editor, sat down for a candid chat with Asian-American actor James Hong. Check the link at the end to see article in its entirety.]
Aaron: You founded the group East/West Players. What is that?
Mr. Hong: Yes. East/West Players has a fairly large theater down in Japanese-town Los Angeles. It was actually a Bhuddist church of some kind, and they bought it and renovated, changed it to a theater. It's a very, very beautiful theater. And I think approximately three hundred, four hundred, a lot of people attend that. It's quite old now, we just started it back in the days when I did "Rashaman". That was the first play we did there. I
don't know if you're familiar with the actor Mako.
Aaron: Ahh, no.
Mr. Hong: The Asian master in Schwartzenegger's "Conan" movies.
Aaron: OK. Yeah.
Mr. Hong: Anyway, Mako and I sat in my basement apartment one day, and I looked out through that little high window that you can see the sidewalk through. (laughs) Those, of course, were the very early days in Hollywood. I didn't have any work and he didn't have any work and he said, "Well, we're not working. What should we do?". In those days there were no workshops or theaters for us, you know. Like I say, so-called American theaters weren't
going to hire us. So we said, "Why don't we do a play and see what we can do." So we chose "Rashaman" and Mako pitched in a great deal of effort and he became president of East/West Players for a long time. And then from that
little effort of two guys sitting in a basement , chatting, bringing other people in, we did that play. That led to other people joining us and now there's thousands of people that pass through the doors. Almost every Asian-American actor has gone down to East/West Players either to try
out for a part or to attend their functions. I'm so happy to see that group be so successful. It's become a dominant force in American theater.
Source: The Blade Zone