The Stephen Sondheim Society publishes a journal, Sondheim The Magazine, that has grown from a few photocopied pages to a full-colour publication packed with news, reviews, interviews and features.
In regular (non-COVID!) years, we use the magazine to print reviews of recent productions by the trustees - and in particular Craig Glenday (Chair) and David Lardi - and contributors such theatre critic Jeremy Chapman, who also writes a regular column on the UK cabaret scene. Our New York correspondent is Daria Begley, who provides an exhaustive column on The American Perspective. The magazine also features news relating to new and upcoming Sondheim productions; we follow the careers of the many students who've taken part in The Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year competition (aka SSSSPOTY); we feature Q&As with the casts and creatives of all the major Sondheim productions in the UK and beyond; and we strive to include as many educational and informative pieces as possible about the output of Mr Sondheim and his collaborators.
Reproduced below is a sample article: A Q&A with TV and movie star George Takei, as interviewed by Daria Begley.
Sondheim The Magazine
Q&A: George Takei – “I was there…”
Our US correspondent Daria Begley says “Please Hello” to the Reciter in John Doyle’s Pacific Overtures, George Takei – an actor you might know better for his role as Sulu in Star Trek
As an actor, the downside of a successful career in a TV and/or movie series must be that you become known for nothing else, forever typecast in the same role. George Takei, for example, will be forever remembered as the calm-natured science officer Hiraku Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series and subsequent movies.
But the Los Angeles-born actor – who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was awarded a Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service by the Japanese American National Museum – has many strings to his bow: politician, novelist, LBGTQ activist, socialmedia broadcaster, and most recently the headliner in the Classic Stage Company’s acclaimed production of Pacific Overtures, directed by John Doyle.
Following the press night of the production, Takei took time out of his busy schedule to speak to the Society’s New York contributor, Daria Begley, about his return to the role, having first played the Reciter back in 2002.
How did you become involved with the production?
I read in The New York Times in the “Arts, Briefly” section that the Classic Stage Company was considering Pacific Overtures as a revival. Immediately I called my agent and asked him to make some inquiries into the part of the Reciter for me and he called back to say they wanted me.
It’s as simple as that.
The role of the Reciter has been altered for this production. Has that effected your performance in any way?
Not only the Reciter in the production, but the whole production itself has been dramatically changed. I did Pacific Overtures in 2002 in Ohio – that was more or less based on the Broadway production, so it is dramatically changed from that. It’s the signature of John Doyle. As you know, he famously puts his own stamp on every production, including Stephen Sondheim productions. But I think what he’s done here is take that spectacular Broadway production and essentially reached his own sense of theatre – the essence of Japanese aesthetics, which is simplicity, essentialism and elegance. If you look at a Japanese painting, you’ll see brush strokes, there is a scroll, and then another stroke, and that’s the mountain, and there’s all this negative space that takes on such profundity. It’s the same idea with John and Pacific Overtures – it’s the essence of Japanese simplicity: essentialism.
And I think it’s good he didn’t have you play an instrument – that might’ve interfered. I think Doyle just stripped away everything: the make-up, the costumes, even parts of the kabuki. As you say, he filled it in with its essence and its simplicity, and it was all there. I wanted to ask what your collaboration with him was like. He’s known to let the actors take over and allow them develop their character and just let them do what they do best.
[Laughs] Like you said, he reduces it down to the essential story telling. He has his firm ideas, but watching him direct, what I found fascinating was that he is constantly and totally aware of everything: the music, the stage, the negative space – again that word – and if he feels there is too much music, he’ll ask Greg Jarrett, the Musical Director, if he can cut two measures of music to make it shorter. So he has his mind and his ears and his visual sense on the stage, but at the same time he is confident that he has a group of artists who are prepared and ready to do what needs to be done. It’s a mutual collaboration, but he senses the pattern, he knows where he wants people, he sees the visual picture. We fill the pattern that he sets for us.
Did you see the original production?
I did and it was spectacular. [Director] Hal Prince, I’m told, was smitten with kabuki theatre, and this was the first time that I saw a Broadway play that had that kind of passion for Asians, specifically kabuki theatre. He had that hanamachi [geisha district] on Broadway and that spectacular lion dance that ends the first act. They had two acts back then but [in this new production] John’s reduced it down to one act with simple storytelling. There were so many other subplots and themes, and this being a Broadway audience, they had to get used to that, and that made it difficult for people to grasp what was happening. But this is reduced to 90 minutes… As complex as the Japanese history of the 19th century is, what John’s done is made a real contribution to the storytelling as well as educating people on Japanese history – Japanese-American history – because it is about an American coming in to transform the Japanese culture.
Was Sondheim at rehearsals often?
No, he wasn’t. I’m told that he was in the audience at the opening, but I never saw him. His presence was always there. But I never can claim to have ever met the master himself.
Did he not give any notes?
No – but we got notes from John [Weidman, playwright] who was in rehearsals and always let us know that he consulted with Sondheim.
I loved your performance. You seemed to be guiding the production and the cast with your wise and noble presence.
You used the two words that John [Doyle] uses to describe my character: wise and noble!
You’re an ardent anglophile who goes to London often and you studied at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford upon Avon. Anything you’d like to tell the Stephen Sondheim Society?
As a matter of fact, my father was an anglophile. I was born in 1937, the year that George VI was crowned, hence my name. I was named after George VI, Elizabeth’s father. When I finished at UCLA, my major was theatre arts, my minor was Latin American studies, and my mother said I had a hopeless major and a useless minor. At graduation, I was hoping for a nice fancy celebratory dinner when I got my bachelor’s degree. My graduation gift from my father was the summer session at the Shakespeare Institute, of all places, Shakespeare’s birthplace, so it was the perfect anglophile gift.
It was wonderful of him to do that for you – not many parents want their children in the arts because it’s so difficult. That was a very brave thing for him to do.
Well, it was a compromise. I did start my college studies as an architect. My father was in real estate and I think he had it in the back of his mind that I would be designing projects as the architect. He wanted to put out signs saying Takei & Son Real Estate Development!
So I started school as an architecture major at Berkley. I was there as a good son for two years and then I came back down to Los Angeles and I told my father that I’ve got to be true to myself and that I wanted to go to New York and study at the Actor’s Studio, where all the greats were coming from. My father knew his son because he was prepared for that.
He said, “I know that the Actor’s Studio is a fine, respective and excellent school, but will they give you a diploma that will certify that you are a properly educated person? Your mother and I want you to have that. But you have to be mindful that New York is a crowded place, a competitive place and a very expensive place, and you have to be prepared to do it all on your own. Let me offer you a compromise. Here in town we have UCLA, which has a fine theatre arts department, and if you study theatre arts there, they will give you that documentation your mother and I want. So if you study at UCLA, then we’ll subsidise you.”
Smart father, smart son!
Well, that’s how that came about. He wasn’t always understanding, but he really did understand who I was and he saw that I was determined to study theatre, so he was prepared to compromise. As it turned out, Daddy did know best, because I was seen in student productions at UCLA, which is in Hollywood and the casting directors would see me. This got me my first feature film, Ice Palace, starring that great Shakespearean actor Richard Burton! The gods up there were pulling the strings for me.
I want to thank you for your work and your activism, not just for the Asian and LGBTQ community, but for everyone.
Particularly for your inspiration, especially in this country, with your childhood. I don’t know how you overcame that. You must be a strong and forgiving person.
Thank you for that. In many ways, my father was an extraordinary man. But he was prepared to make compromises… In many ways he was a proud American despite what he’d been through. And he guided me during my teenage identity search. He is my hero!
From Sondheim The Magazine, No.85, December 2017
George Takei, Reciter in Pacific Overtures by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman; Classic Stage Company, New York, USA. 6 April–18 June 2017. Photo: Alex Lozupone
Takei with Marc Oka (left), Megan Masako Haley and Thom Sesma. Photo: Joan Marcus
Takei, seated, with (from left to right) Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, Marc Oka and Thom Sesma. Photo: Joan Marcus
Takei with Megan Masako Haley (Tamate). Although the piece was originally conceived to for an all-male cast, Director John Doyle included two women in the company, Haley and Ann Harada. Photo: Joan Marcus