Entertainment » Theatre

Carl Hsu :: From Taiwan to Boston to 'Pacific Overtures' at the Lyric

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 7, 2019

For the past few seasons, The Lyric Stage Company of Boston has had something of a focus on the work of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, thanks to the love that the company's producing artistic director, Spiro Veloudos, has for the American theater legend.

The Lyric's production of "Pacific Overtures" marks the end of the run for Sondheim works; once again, Veloudos takes the mantle of director for the show, which stars two New York City-based actors in the lead roles.

"Pacific Overtures" revisits a period in history - the mid to late 19th century - in which the United States pries open Japan, determined to establish (and dominate) a trade relationship. In the process, Western fashion and influence begin to seep into Japan, and the lead characters - a fisherman named Manjiro, who encounters the American fleet out at sea, and a samurai named Kayama (played by Sam Hamashima), who is assigned the impossible duty of protecting Japan from the Americans - find their lives entwined (and irrevocably altered) across the next two decades.

Carl Hsu plays Kayama. A graduate of Boston Conservatory who is now based in New York, Hsu returns to Boston for his Lyric Stage debut. EDGE caught up with Hsu recently to hear about his experiences with the show, his first encounter with Sondheim's work, and what it's like to work with a Sondheim fan of Veloudos' caliber.

EDGE: This production marks your inaugural appearances at the Lyric Stage. How did you end up being cast in "Pacific Overtures?"

Carl Hsu: This show is the last show of the Sondheim series at the Lyric Stage Company. When the director, Spiro, was thinking about doing the show he had these two brothers in mind [Sam and Tyler Simahk]. They are from Boston, and they're currently based in New York. One thing about the Lyric Stage Company is they rarely hire people from out of town; they have been there for 22 years, and I am probably the sixth out-of-towner they've cast because they usually just cast local people. And the reason why that happened was because the Simahk brothers got better offers and so they aren't able to do this show. That's why they were in New York — to scout actors to audition. And I went to the audition and I got cast. They are treating me very nicely!

EDGE: You play Kayama, a samurai tasked with securing the border, as it were, and keeping Western influences at bay. What do you care to share about the character and the journey he goes through over the two decades or so that the play spans?

Carl Hsu: The first thing when it comes to the script, I started thinking about how I can see myself in this character. There are actually a lot of similarities; Kayama is someone who is more traditional at the beginning of the show, but then as the show progresses and the Americans start doing trade with Japan, Kayama starts to become more and more Westernized. This is how I see myself in this character; I am from Taiwan originally. Even though the city where I am from is a very Westernized city, I wasn't exposed to American culture until I moved here in 2007. And throughout the years I found myself going through the journey that Kayama is probably going through — I found myself more and more Americanized, to the point that when I go back to Taiwan, things start to feel foreign. That's his journey, and I felt like that's something I can identify with. It's very interesting.

Another fun fact is that Kayama starts out as a policeman, and back in Taiwan I served in the military because it was mandatory, and I was also a Coast Guard sergeant for a year. And so I was guarding the sea port! So that's another [way in which] I see myself in this character because I went through that experience.

EDGE: "Pacific Overtures" is a musical, of course — how do you see the show's songs as informing its dramatic and historical content?

Carl Hsu: My first Sondheim experience was listening to the cast recording of "Into the Woods." When I played that music I was, like, "What is this thing? It's so complicated; it's not melodic. It's so bizarre!" I didn't fall in love [with the music] until I saw the DVD version of the Broadway production of "Into the Woods." I feel like it's pretty much the same with "Pacific Overtures," as well — when I first listened to the cast recording, I couldn't understand any of it. It's so weird, and there are so many words. Just listening to the soundtrack didn't quite, in itself, do it for me.

But then as I started reading the script, all the songs started making sense, and I feel like that says a lot about integration in Sondheim's show — the music and drama. Let's take my song "Poems," for example — If you just look at the music and listen to the cast recording, it sounds like it's two people reciting a song back and forth to each other. It's not the most exciting scenario. But when you really look at what these characters are doing, there is a conversation going on between these two characters, Kayama and Manjiro, and that at some point these two characters start to sing together. That, to me, symbolizes the coming together of those two characters. There is really a close relationship between the storyline and the music. I feel like the songs in this song totally serve dramatic purposes.

EDGE: As you mentioned, Spiro Veloudos, who is directing this production, has also brought a number of other Sondheim works to the Lyric in recent seasons. What's it been like working on a Sondheim musical with such a Sondheim aficionado?

Carl Hsu: The first day, when we had the meet and greet, my impression of this director is that he is very knowledgeable when it comes to Sondheim stuff. And he had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do. We're sort of trying to stay away from the original version of the show; we're trying to stay away from the kabuki style. I feel that not only is Spiro very knowledgeable in the world of Sondheim musicals, but he also has a very clear vision of what he wants to make out of it.

EDGE: Have you become a Sondheim fan like Spiro?

Carl Hsu: This is actually my first Sondheim show ever! It's so great, and to be able to do this show particularly is such a privilege.

EDGE: Is there another Sondheim or other musical you'd particularly like to do someday?

Carl Hsu: I'm really hoping that Lyric will do a production of 'M. Butterfly,' and they will cast me in that!

An interview with Carl Hsu's castmate Sam Hamashima is available here.

"Pacific Overtures" runs May 10 - June 16 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.lyricstage.com/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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