Reflections from Pacific Overtures Bookwriter John Weidman
Production: PACIFIC OVERTURES, 2016-2017 Season
Pacific Overtures was born in 1965 in a classroom at Harvard College. I had arrived at Harvard with the intention of majoring in Modern European History but departmental regulations required me to take a course outside my specific field of interest and I chose the survey course in East Asian History. China and Japan, with a sprinkling of Korea thrown in for good measure.
I’d graduated from a first-rate high school in New York, which is to say I’d had a first-rate post-war American high school education—an education in which Asia had been completely and entirely ignored, as if that half of the world simply did not exist. To be exposed, all in one breath, to the events, the adventures, the complexities and nuances of these fascinating cultures—hundreds if not thousands of years older than my own—was, as we used to say in the ‘60s, mind-blowing. And the experience changed my life.
Fade out, fade in.
Several years had passed and I found myself sitting in the library at Yale Law School where I was a second year student, enjoying the law school, but knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not want to spend my life practicing law.
But if I wasn’t going to practice law, what was I going to do? The answer seemed obvious—in a way which you can only appreciate if you came of age in the “whatever’s right” counterculture of the ‘60s.
I was going to write a play. I mean, why not? True, I’d never written a play before, I’d never contemplated a career in the theater, I’d certainly never trained for one. On the other hand, I’d been an avid theatergoer ever since my allowance had been large enough to allow me to buy a ticket in the balcony to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
I knew what a play looked on the page, I had a yellow legal pad and a pen, and I knew at least a little bit about an historical episode about which most people knew absolutely nothing—the momentous, dramatic, and enormously consequential events surrounding America’s first encounter with Japan: Commodore’s Perry 1853 expedition to open up an empire which had deliberately closed itself off to contact with the rest of the world for almost two hundred and fifty years. A first toe in the water for American adventurism on the other side of the world, explored at a moment when the war in Viet Nam was still raging around me with no end in sight.
I went to work. I wrote a first draft. I sent an entirely disingenuous letter to Hal Prince asking if he ever hired law students as interns in his office (I had no interest in being such an intern) appending a PS in which I said I was working on a play about the opening of Japan and that I would value his input.
Hal, who had a reputation for openness and curiosity and for being generously available to young artists, responded that, no, he didn’t hire interns in his office, but that the play sounded interesting and if I was ever in New York I should make an appointment to come in and talk to him about it.
As James Lapine would one day write in Into the Woods, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor. I made the appointment. I arranged to be in New York. I had a first conversation with Hal. I finished the play. Hal, who became increasingly intrigued with the possibilities of combining the larger-then-life conventions of the Kabuki Theater and American Musical Theater, did a reading of the play and decided it would work better as a musical. He brought Steve into the project. The three of us went to work … and next thing I knew I found myself standing at the back of the Winter Garden Theater with my former hero, now my collaborator and, as it would turn out, my great and good friend for life, Stephen Sondheim, watching the opening night performance of our new musical.
There is obviously a great deal more I could say about the process of moving Pacific Overtures from the page to the stage. But the specifics have a good deal in common with the way in which other musicals of the time made their way from the page to the stage.
The beginnings of the project, however, the first steps it took as it shook itself into existence, remain as ridiculously and delightfully improbable to me today as they did forty years ago.