The Heart Knows the Word's Disguise

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Pacific Overtures, original cast album. There are a few ways to hear this path-breaking Sondheim score from 1976: First, as a response/correction/updating to the yellowface of The King and I and Flower Drum Song, for which Rodgers wrote lovely but limited Orientalist pastiches and Hammerstein turned out some earnest but questionable doggerel lyrics. With its twanging shamisen, clattering taiko drums, and fragrant shakuhachi, and its idiomatic, lightly rhymed lyrics, Sondheim's effort wins handily in the "sounds more authentic" column, even if what he's done, it might be argued, is just a better, more sympathetic, but still necessarily incomplete job of mimicry.

The way I hear the score, though, and maybe the reason it resonates so strongly with me, is as a link to an older antecedent, to which I've referred admiringly before: the turn-of-the-century French tradition of chinoiserie. Sondheim has spoken about how the key that unlocked the East/West divide for him was an affinity he heard between the pentatonic scales of Manuel de Falla and that of traditional Japanese music, but I'd argue that the influence of Falla's French contemporaries--Ravel and Satie in particular--is also always salient with Sondheim. If Sunday in the Park is, for obvious reasons, a more direct homage to the great early 20th-century French composers, Pacific Overtures sounds to me like it belongs in the company of those composers' self-consciously exotic, fantastical works--Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, Chansons Madecasses, and Ma Mere l'Oye, even Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. In attempting to conjure either the East or the ancient world or both, these composers reached for spiky, brilliant harmonies and fresh approaches to counterpoint and instrumentation, and I hear a similar muse animating the harmonies and orchestrations of this score.

Perhaps it's telling that in questing for a new and distant sound, Sondheim seems to have tapped some deep reservoir of feeling in himself--at least as I hear it. I can barely listen to "Someone in a Tree," for instance, without welling up with emotion--quite an achievement for a finely layered quartet about the fragmentary, contingent nature of perception, memory, and communication, but such is the level at which Sondheim can work, and insists that we do, too. The ambition in itself is breathtaking; what's surprising is how much of the music is, too.

I would probably rank Sweeney Todd and Company more highly overall, and indeed I do have warmly lit niches in my pantheon for all the Sondheim scores except his last two. But there's something about this odd, spare, haunting musical--which I saw in a definitive production at East West Players in 1998--that sticks with me.

Oh, and since we're talking formative, it also inspired this, with my band Millhouse:

David Barbour This is how the world moves backward. Thirty years ago, Prince could raise money for a Broadway production of the most abstruse musical ever written. (Don't get me wrong, the score is heaven, but a musical about the opening of Japan to West? Is that box office or what?) If he tried it today, they'd put him away...


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