Backstage

Pacific Overtures

Ahead of Thursday night’s premiere of Pacific Overtures we caught up with actor Nick Simpson-Deeks and asked him a few questions about this much anticipated work.

What makes Pacific Overtures such a wonderful musical to be a part of?

The score is one of my favourite scores. Like all of Sondheim’s music, the more time you spend with it the more complexities, subtleties, and possibilities reveal themselves; it’s terribly rich material for an actor. The other thing that attracted me to the project was knowing I will probably never have another chance to perform in Pacific Overtures, which, historically, has been played by a Japanese cast. Our production is unapologetically cross-cultural, so it’s an unexpected one-off opportunity for many of the cast, I think, and we’re all relishing it.

What role do you play and what is it about this role that has stretched you most as an artist?

There are fifty-something characters in this production, played by thirteen actors, so we’re all tackling multiple roles. Mainly though, I play a character named Manjirō, who is based on a real historical figure – the first “Westernised” Japanese person. John Weidman’s take on him is somewhat fictionalised, however, so I suppose the trick is in knowing exactly how much to draw from historical fact and how much of that to throw away. This is a complex story, told in a way that may be unfamiliar to musical theatre audiences, so finding consistency and truth and sensitivity and humor in the tone that we’ve created for our production (a more “black box”, or simplified version than, for example, the 1976 Broadway production) is challenging across the board.

What drives you as a performer in your own creative process?

I think what inspires and excites me as an artist, especially as I get older, are those rare opportunities to work on exceptional work with collaborators you revere and respect. I’ve been blessed on both Pacific Overtures and Assassins to be part of two extraordinarily generous, supportive and talented companies.

After the critical and popular success of Sondheim’s “Assassins” last year (where you played the Balladeer), in what way has your appreciation for Sondheim deepened through this new role? Compare them if you dare!

The two are almost impossible to compare – a fact that I think highlights the brilliance of the writers, and enforces Sondheim’s approach to the creative process: “Content dictates form”. Assassins is written in an entirely different format to Overtures – the former is essentially a revue, which makes perfect sense for the lineup of violent outcasts that populate the world of the show. Conversely, Pacific Overtures feels almost like a chamber opera at times, which speaks to the epic nature of the story unfolding (encapsulating 160 years of history) but also borrows certain conventions from Kabuki. The story is told through a series of tableaus, if you like, that materialise, play out, and then dissolve to make way for the next moment.

Having said that, I have found some similarities that are shared by my roles in both productions: In Assassins, the Balladeer is an embodiment of a particular interpretation of The American Dream, one which ultimately becomes corrupted. In Pacific Overtures, Manjirō embodies certain themes through his love of America – change, growth, modernisation, invasion. But eventually he represents a resistance to those things and becomes representative of a Japan trying in vain to cling to a way of life that is being suddenly eroded. Both character arcs represent a shift in ideals.

How is it possible that this is the first full-scale production in Melbourne of a Sondheim?

Seems crazy, doesn’t it? I’m not sure. The piece is highly stylised for a musical, and superficially it’s about a moment in history that some may feel modern Australian audiences would have little interest in. Perhaps these points go some way towards explaining it. Once you get to the guts of the work though, the themes driving Pacific Overtures are timeless and universally relevant; this is a show about love and fear and wholesale change. The way Sondheim and Weidman explore the notion of national identity and the concept of invasion anxiety are hugely resonant in Australia in 2014.

You’ve played Frankie Valli in the original Melbourne production of the Jersey Boys, Archie McMahon in both seasons of the critically acclaimed SBS drama series The Circuit and of course the role of Rhys Mitchell in Channel Seven’s Winners & Losers. What do you love most about live theatre in comparison to your TV and film work?

I love working in film and TV, but there’s something electric (and terrifying) about working in front of an audience. Live theatre is a conversation, a shared experience between actor and audience; it’s visceral and immediate and (hopefully) very exciting.

If you could have any two people from history at a dinner party, who would they be and why?

After researching American presidential assassinations for Watch This last year I’m going to have to go with Oswald and JFK. I became fascinated with the endless tangle of theories around that event, and I’d love to sit those two down together and get to the bottom of things.

And – as it would definitely come up in polite dinner conversation – what would they think of Pacific Overtures?

I’m not sure how they’d feel about the representation of the US, but I think Kennedy would appreciate the Geishas, and Oswald would probably like the sword fighting.

Date: 19 Feb 2014 – 09 Mar 2014
Time: Tue to Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm
Preview: Wed 19 Feb 7.30pm & Thu 20 Feb 2pm
Price: $39 full / $35 groups 8+ / $29 conc & preview [$49 Gala Opening Night Thu 20 Feb]

Book here