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Theater: Sailing Through the Storms

5 minute read
William A. Henry III

Lasers embroidered the curtains with bursts of aquamarine and white to simulate lightning. An electronic hiss and crackle conjured up thunder. Billows of cloth suggested wind and rain, then fell away to reveal the swaying prow of a tempest-tossed Renaissance ship. Its captain shouted orders, wrestled with the wheel, tumbled into a make-believe sea and emerged a moment later as if dragging himself onto shore. He cried in triumph, “Sweet Jesus, I’m alive!”

The relieved laughter and sustained applause that greeted Philip Casnoff as he spoke that line were partly to honor the melodramatic stage effects. But much of the response was to salute the actor for his brave return to the stage on what was to have been opening night of the year’s biggest Broadway musical, Shogun, the Musical — an $8 million extravaganza of sword fights and fireflies, earthquakes and snowstorms, based on James Clavell’s best-selling novel and TV mini-series. In a preview two days before the scheduled opening, as he readied himself to sing the second-act number Death Walk, Casnoff was struck on the head and knocked to the stage by a 30-lb. scenic screen that broke loose from 18 ft. overhead. The performance was immediately canceled. Fortunately, if astonishingly to onlookers, Casnoff suffered only superficial injuries and took just one day off before resuming previews for this week’s opening. Some of the metaphysically inclined credited his survival to the producers’ having brought in five Shinto priests from Japan, before performances started, to purify the Marquis Theater amid the neon honky-tonk of Times Square. Skeptics complained that the blessing should have averted the freak accident altogether.

The same Shinto ritual might have been helpful at the Kennedy Center in Washington, where tryouts began in August. At that point the show ran almost 3 1/2 hours. Its plot was virtually impenetrable, in part because 85% was sung rather than spoken, in part because in its conspiratorial milieu — the warrior era of 17th century Japan — good guys quite often turned into clandestine bad guys, or vice versa. Critics were harsh, but audiences were more forgiving. Thanks to word of mouth, the show averaged nearly $400,000 a week at the box office — almost, but not quite, enough to cover weekly operating costs for a 35-member cast, 350 costumes, 150 wigs and 140,000 lbs. of sets and equipment.

Meanwhile, producer Clavell and his team — director-choreographer Michael Smuin, adapter-lyricist John Driver and composer Paul Chihara — hacked away an hour of running time, primarily pageantry. A funeral procession was eliminated. A 3 1/2-minute ballad about the hero’s adulterous love was compressed to 30 seconds. A formalized yet rousing 12-minute battle scene was fought and won in five. Musical exchanges between a Portuguese trader and a Jesuit missionary became clearer and quicker as dialogue. Almost every show in tryout undergoes revision, but few weather change of this magnitude.

On top of all else, the creators recast the leading role, a marooned English seaman who must make a life in Japan. Clavell originally wanted a Briton and hired Peter Karrie. Mounting discontent with him led the creators to turn to Casnoff, 37, who had sung the role ably at an informal audition but at the time struck them as too young, little known and American. Casnoff took the job but wanted further changes: “I was kind of outspoken because they had so much work to do in so little time. They were between an opera and a book musical, neither fish nor fowl.”

Nothing in the theater is ever a sure bet, but Clavell always believed Shogun was close to it. The 1975 novel sold 15 million copies worldwide. The ; 12-hour TV version, seen by more than 130 million in the U.S., was the nation’s fourth most watched mini-series ever, and proved just as popular in Japan (whence came the bulk of the musical’s financing). Says Clavell: “It’s got a love story and, obviously, opportunities for high adventure. In production values it should compare quite favorably with Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera.” So he financed the start-up and even now remains a principal investor. He explains, “My attitude, and my wife’s attitude, has been that we don’t gamble in the stock market or anything, we gamble on us.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the gamble will pay. Shogun shrewdly combines the spectacle of recent British-import musicals with the romantic story line and charming set pieces of Broadway tradition. It will have passionate enthusiasts for its bold theatricality and epic sweep; it comes with a built- in constituency. But it may make few new converts. Unless one knows the book or TV show, the plot is hard to get involved in, especially in the breakneck opening minutes. The love scenes, although competently acted, are so flatly written that they lack emotional intensity, a defect that the lush, quasi-operatic score only partly makes up for. In the script’s soap-opera view of life, sexual passion and jealousy drive even political revolutions. And there are echoes of the worst musical of the 1980s, the Shroud of Turin howler Into the Light, in the finale: red-and-gold-robed chorines try to explain the Asian religious concept of karma in lines seemingly lifted from a Southern California bumper sticker (“Karma is the way you never die”). One leaves the theater wondering if those Shinto priests read the script.

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