Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, left, is shown with cast members of “Pacific Overtures” after the closing performance of the musical’s revival at New York’s Church of the Heavenly Rest at York Theater, April 14, 1984. The actors are, from left, Kevin Gray, Ernest Abuba, and Tony Marino. Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century, died Nov. 26 at age 91. 

Rafu Staff Report

Lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, hailed by **The New York Times** as a
“Titan of the American Musical,” died on Nov. 26 at the age of 91.

His best-known works include “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Into the Woods.”

Tim Dang, artistic director emeritus of East West Players in Los Angeles, is among those in the theater community mourning Sondheim’s passing: “Stephen Sondheim played a major role in the growth of East West Players as we produced and continue to produce his musical masterpieces with our unique vision. And the individuals who participated in these productions have been inspired and achieved successful careers in film/TV and on Broadway. Many do not know Sondheim was on our Advisory Board and a donor to East West Players.

“On a personal level, I was pleasantly surprised as a college student that he responded graciously to my letter of admiration on his creation of ‘Pacific Overtures’ on Broadway in the mid-seventies. Meeting him in person at Harry’s Bar in Century City after the Ovation Awards honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award is a memory I shall never forget. It was a surreal moment. It was just Stephen and me for a minute before the post-show crowd filled the bar.

“His work will always continue to inspire me. We will miss him.”

EWP’s production of Sondheim’s “Assassins,” delayed because of the pandemic, will premiere next February. A darkly comic Tony Award winner, the play examines the motives of the nine notorious Americans who took their shot at the president, including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley.

EWP said in a statement, “Like anything that seeks to describe his monumental achievements, to say that Stephen Sondheim looms large over East West Players feels like an understatement. However, in this case it accurately describes the larger-than-life photos of Mako, Alvin Ing and others from various productions of ‘Pacific Overtures’ that even today hang in the theater. 

Artwork for the original Broadway cast recording of “Pacific Overtures.”

“To date, East West Players has produced nine of Sondheim’s works, some multiple times. Our upcoming production of ‘Assassins’ will be the 10th. We are grateful for all of his support of EWP and the opportunities and support he provided for API artists. The timeless, beautiful hats you have made are off for you today. We salute you, Stephen.”

Playwright David Henry Hwang, a Tony winner for “M. Butterfly,” tweeted, “Besides being arguably the greatest dramatist of our time, Stephen Sondheim was also one of our most generous mentors, which included his founding of the Young Playwrights Festival (1981-2015). All of us who love and work in musical theatre today are lucky to be his children.”

Singer and actress Lea Salonga, a Tony winner for “Miss Saigon,” posted on Facebook, “Rest In Peace, Stephen Sondheim, and thank you for your vast contributions to musical theater. We shall be singing your songs forever. Oh, my heart hurts…”

“Pacific Overtures,” with lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, opened on Broadway in 1976. Set in 19th-century Japan, it tells the story of the country’s westernization starting in 1853, when American ships forcibly opened it to the rest of the world. The story was told from the point of view of the Japanese and 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 (kuroko).

The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won two for scenic design and costume design.

Yuki Shimoda (center) as Lord Abe in the musical number “Please Hello,” from the 1976 production of “Pacific Overtures.”

The musical provided opportunities for many Asian American actors. The original cast included Mako (who received a Tony nomination), Soon-Tek Oh, Isao Sato, Yuki Shimoda, Sab Shimono, Alvin Ing, Ernest Abuba, James Dybas, Timm Fujii, Haruki Fujimoto, Larry Hama, Patrick Kinser-Lau, Mark Hsu Syers, Gedde Watanabe and Ernest Harada.

A Broadway revival in 2004-2005 starred BD Wong and members of the original cast. An Off-Broadway run in 2017, with a new abridged book by Weidman, starred George Takei. There have been other productions across the U.S. (including EWP at both its current and former locations) as well as in Japan and England.

Until recently, the only reliable source of employment for Asian American actors in mainstream theater was in plays with many Asian characters, such as “Pacific Overtures,” “Flower Drum Song,” “The King and I,” and “Miss Saigon,” and to a lesser extent plays like “A Chorus Line” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which have one Asian character each.

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