Sondheim and Weidman's East-West musical Pacific Overtures is big. Or, at least, it was when originally staged in 1976 at Broadway's vast Winter Garden theatre - there were 22 in the band alone. The current revival, however, which began life almost two years ago at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, is a lot leaner. Gary Griffin, the director, has reinvented it for 10 actors and four musicians. This is Sondheim in close-up. And the musical really does bear serious scrutiny: it's about nothing less than why an entire nation hates the West. Not bad for something written in 1975.
Imagine the scene. One autumn day, Griffin begins rehearsals, his actors singing about a country being invaded: "Four black dragons/ Spitting fire!/ And the sun darkened/ And the sea bubbled/ And the earth trembled/ And the sky cracked/ And I thought it was the end/ Of the world!". And they have the boisterous finale "Next": "Tower rises/ Next!/ Tower crumbles/ Man revises"? It was 10 September, 2001.
"We were working through a weird fog," remembers Griffin of the days that followed. He is now safely ensconced in a north London rehearsal room with his new cast off on a lunch break. "We were telling this story and rehearsing on a pier next to a water reclamation plant that they thought would be one of the first places to be poisoned - so there were armoured trucks everywhere. Then we'd go home and watch it all on TV."
The resonance, though, had nothing to do with Griffin's decision to revive the show. "I didn't like the notion that these shows can't be done without massive forces." Griffin has been here before. He had a runaway success with a downsized My Fair Lady. While directing a full-scale revival of Lerner and Loewe's masterpiece, he saw how they had inflated a small piece to Broadway proportions, finding ways of fitting in chorus work, a pre-requisite of traditional musicals. That led him to restage it with a cast of 10. With virtually no rewrites at all, he found dismissing the grand dimension helped unlock parts of the story. "Doolittle's numbers are full of repet- ition so the answer seems to be to have more people dance. But what if he's challenged at every turn? We see a man who's clever, a smart survivor. In 'Get Me To The Church on Time' he does the first half full out, but then does the second to himself. It suddenly turns very dark."
Pacific Overtures lends itself equally to such radical reinvention, with Griffin replacing spectacle with specifics. It's the guiding principle in his choice of material. In an intimate space, audiences latch on to words as they would in a play, but distressingly few musicals have lyrics that drive the material and stand up to close inspection. "It's all about the integration between book and lyrics: if the material is tightly constructed, it can happen."
'Pacific Overtures' opens tonight at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020-7369 1732; www.donmarehouse.com)Reuse content