A Bad Translation of ‘Shogun’ : Why the opulent production of the hit James Clavell novel and miniseries lasted less than 100 days on Broadway


Looking back, it seemed like a can’t-miss idea.

“Shogun,” James Clavell’s romantic yarn about an English sea captain marooned in feudal Japan, had a proven allure, first to readers of the international best seller, then to television viewers as an NBC miniseries. Wouldn’t it make a smash musical?

Eight years and several million dollars later, that idea finally made it to Broadway. It lasted less than 100 days and closed last Sunday. By the final curtain, “Shogun, the Musical” had suffered a history as disappointing as its earlier incarnations had been successful.

What happened? Maybe it was the piece of scenery crashing down and beaning the lead actor, Philip Casnoff, on the night of the critics’ preview. Maybe it was the hail of deadly reviews that followed. Maybe, as a couple of actors suggested, it was even the fear of terrorists keeping theatergoers away from Times Square and the Marquis Theatre.


Or maybe making “Shogun” into a musical wasn’t such a great idea, after all.

Even the director, Michael Smuin, had reservations at first. Eight years ago, when Clavell tried to interest him in the project, Smuin turned the author down. “I tried to write an outline, but I was never really happy with it,” Smuin recalled. “I thought the historical landscape of that novel was just too big to do a musical.”

And so began a succession of writers, lyricists and directors who tried boiling down a novel of epic proportions detailing the tangled adventures of the seafarer Blackthorne, which took 12 hours in the miniseries format, into a single evening’s presentation.

One constant, however, was Clavell, who from the beginning had an uncommonly close involvement in the production--including much of his own money--even toward the end when he flew in from Switzerland to oversee a $500,000 TV commercial being shot in a last-ditch attempt to pique the public’s interest in the musical. It was Clavell who notified the lead actors at home that the Jan. 20 performance was to be the last.

Clavell, appearing unflappable in the face of his show’s difficulties, said in the waning weeks of the production that he was disappointed in the critical response to “Shogun,” but not in the show itself. It was everything, he said, that he intended--faithful in spirit to the novel and miniseries.

“We’re an audience pleaser. People laugh and they cry, and they come out happy and they’ve had a good time,” Clavell said. And even the severest critics couldn’t deny that “Shogun” delivered a lot of bang for the buck. “You get a peek into 16th-17th Century Japan,” Clavell said. “You get to look at some very beautiful dancing and choreography, and girls and good-looking fellas, and there are fight sequences. . . . We’re a spectacular show.”

That is only the half of it. The musical’s opening scene featured the large bow of Blackthorne’s ship heaving in storm-tossed seas and before the end of the first act, the stage erupted in an earthquake. A snowstorm swirled about samurai warriors riding off in a battle scene, and sinister ninjas dropped from the sky. There was a cast of 35 and cost of the production was an estimated $7 million, with a reported $1 million alone for costuming.


It all made for the sort of spectacle that the mass audience often appreciates more than critics do, and it was that word-of-mouth heat that the show’s backers counted on. In the final weeks of the production, Peter LeDonne, a New York theater advertising wizard hired to help take the show over the heads of critics, said hopefully: “People come out saying they really get their money’s worth, that you really see where the millions are spent. It’s all right there on stage. . . . “

But by the time the show was ready for tryouts at the Kennedy Center in Washington last September, there were already signs of trouble. A rift among the creative team over the show’s emphasis on the dazzling effects was drawing to a head, and would ultimately rupture a long friendship between Smuin and his one-time collaborator, composer Paul Chihara.

Smuin and Chihara were approached by Clavell for “Shogun” in 1982 on the strength of “Shinju,” the ballet the two had created for San Francisco Ballet in 1976. At the time, Smuin was the ballet company’s artistic director, Chihara its resident composer. The two had worked together on “Sophisticated Ladies” and elsewhere.

But where Smuin turned down Clavell’s offer, Chihara didn’t. He started right away on the music. Two years ago, when Clavell contacted Smuin again, Chihara’s tunes lured his old friend on board.

In time, however, Chihara said the music became secondary to other aspects of the show: The cast was spending more time working with a martial arts master brought from Japan than rehearsing his songs, he said.

As opening night neared in Washington, Chihara said he became increasingly dismayed with the direction of the show. Songs that he saw as crucial to the story were being sacrificed to save what he saw as extraneous dance and fight sequences. Shortly after the opening, Chihara said he was told not to return to the theater and that his suggestions could be conveyed by fax to the show’s producers.


Smuin acknowledged that he was preoccupied with staging and special effects, but out of necessity. The staging’s execution was so technical, he said, that the first complete run-through of “Shogun” was on its opening-night performance.

“I’ll tell you what my exercise was in Washington,” Smuin said during the holidays: “To get the show on for the first preview safely so no one got killed in all these scenery shifts. Then once it was on its feet safely, I went back to the book and that’s when we started trimming and rewriting and rearranging.

“We had a nearly 4-hour show when we opened. Oh, it was endless. I thought the curtain would never come down. I started cutting the next day.”

The changes created chaos. June Angela, who starred as Blackthorne’s love interest, Lady Mariko, said it wasn’t unusual for new scenes to be rehearsed in the afternoon while the old ones were performed later that evening. “I had to write my lines on my props, it was getting too confusing,” Angela said.

Then Angela’s leading man, British musical actor Peter Karrie, was unexpectedly fired. A younger actor, Philip Casnoff, would take over the role of Blackthorne in New York, she was told.

Casnoff said he had mixed feelings about accepting the role. While watching the show, Casnoff found he couldn’t make sense of the story--and he had read the novel.


“They weren’t sure exactly how to change it, but they knew audiences were confused,” Casnoff said. “They were a little overwhelmed. On the other hand, from the first night I saw it, audiences were enjoying it enough for (the creators) to know they had something to work with.”

Casnoff suggested that the show be made less operatic. In addition, the love story was made more prominent. “I don’t think the show ended up being perfect,” said Casnoff, who was able to open in the musical despite the accidental beaning. “But I think it was more lucid by the time it reached New York.”

Even though the show was struggling on Broadway, both Casnoff and Angela said the company was surprised by the show’s closing. Clavell and the Japanese backers had seemed prepared to sit tight through the yearly post-holiday Broadway letdown to see how the show would fare in March. Advance tickets were already selling for March, and a recently hired stage manager was told he’d be employed at least the next few months.

But the first week this year, the Marquis wasn’t even half full. “Shogun’s” net receipts were about $175,000, when operating expenses for the musical ran about $340,000 per week.

Casnoff said that at least the closing came in time for the TV pilot season, which might mean another acting job. Two hours after Clavell and co-producer Joe Harris phoned her to break the bad news, the composer for a musical she had starred in a few years back called to say his show might play Pasadena in the fall. Any chance she’d be free to reprise her star turn?

As it turns out, the musical is set in Japan, too. And it’s based on a best seller and a movie, “Sayonara.” Hoping that a miracle might yet save “Shogun” before its closing, Angela didn’t let on that her schedule was open: “I told him I’d give him a call Monday.”