George Takei On His Role In “Pacific Overtures” And Why We’d Be “Better Off” With Pence As President

"At least he’s a politician."

Though George Takei made his Broadway debut just two years ago in Allegiance, he’s long been active in theater: “It’s my first love,” he says. Takei first took to the stage in 1961 when he played George in the Civil Rights musical Fly Blackbird!. He’s appeared in at least one play every decade since.

Now Takei returns to the New York stage with Classic Stage Company’s revival of Pacific Overtures, the 1976 Sondheim musical that examines the Westernization of Japan in the mid-19th century. Takei plays the Reciter, a role he previously performed in a 2002 concert production in Dayton, Ohio.

Before a preview, the actor-activist chatted with NewNowNext about the role, how the history of Japanese-American relations is still relevant today, and why he’d rather have Mike Pence in the White House.

Congratulations on the new production. You have a history with Pacific Overtures.

I saw the original production in 1976. I had many friends in it. Then the East West Players, an Asian-American company that’s the longest-running minority theater company in America, produced it back in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. That was wonderful, too. It’s a spectacular show. It looks at a part of history we’re rarely exposed to in the United States. And of course, the Sondheim music is absolutely transporting.

Classic Stage Company Pacific Overtures Book by JOHN WEIDMAN  Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM  Additional Material by HUGH WHEELER  Directed and Designed by JOHN DOYLE With KARL JOSEF CO, MARC DELACRUZ, STEVEN ENG, MEGAN MASAKO HALEY,  ANN HARADA, KIMBERLY IMMANUEL, AUSTIN KU, KELVIN MOON LOH, ORVILLE MENDOZA, MARC OKA, THOM SESMA, GEORGE TAKEI Music Supervisor ROB BERMAN  Music Director GREG JARRETT  Costume Design ANN HOULD-WARD  Lighting Design JANE COX  Sound Design DAN MOSES SCHREIER  Hair & Makeup Design J. JARED JANAS
Pacific Overtures/Joan Marcus

Director John Doyle has won praise for stripping down this musical production. Were you eager to work with him?

He has a singular touch, and I think that he’s cut Pacific Overtures down to its essentials. He captures what Japan was as an isolated, pure culture, and then contrasts that with the impact of Americans and Westernization—the chaos of what follows and the foreshadowing of what’s to come.

From the very first rehearsal, John said, “This is a story written by a white male American, with music composed by a white male American, and the director [John himself] is a white Scotsman.” We [in the cast] are Asian-Americans, but the vantage point is essentially American. John spends enough time in this country that he considers himself part American, I think.

The last musical you appeared in,Allegiance, was based on your own experience living in A WWII internment camps as a child, and examined the suffering of people of Japanese ancestry who considered themselves American.

That’s another chunk of history we don’t know enough about as Americans, and it’s so relevant to our times. Just replace Japanese-Americans with Muslim-Americans, and it’s happening again. The difference today is that when Donald Trump signed his [travel ban], massive numbers of people rushed to airports all over the country to protest. And then the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, refused to defend it, and then courts put a stay on it. So in 75 years, we have progressed that much. Thank God the citizenry is more informed than the government.

Classic Stage Company Pacific Overtures Book by JOHN WEIDMAN  Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM  Additional Material by HUGH WHEELER  Directed and Designed by JOHN DOYLE With KARL JOSEF CO, MARC DELACRUZ, STEVEN ENG, MEGAN MASAKO HALEY,  ANN HARADA, KIMBERLY IMMANUEL, AUSTIN KU, KELVIN MOON LOH, ORVILLE MENDOZA, MARC OKA, THOM SESMA, GEORGE TAKEI Music Supervisor ROB BERMAN  Music Director GREG JARRETT  Costume Design ANN HOULD-WARD  Lighting Design JANE COX  Sound Design DAN MOSES SCHREIER  Hair & Makeup Design J. JARED JANAS
Pacific Overtures/Joan Marcus

Are you also concerned about LGBT rights under the Trump administration?

Donald Trump has said that equality for LGBT is a settled issue. But his vice president, Mike Pence, is someone with whom we did battle when he was governor of Indiana. He signed that “religious freedom” bill that justified discrimination against LGBT people. Donald is susceptible to the influence of the people surrounding him, so we have to be on our guard.

Would you be more worried about a President Pence, then?

I think we would be better off, actually, because at least he’s a politician. We know how to deal with him. Donald Trump is so volatile and unpredictable and uninformed that you don’t know how to deal with him.

Like Trump, you’re active on social media, though you use it quite differently. Facebook, in particular, has gotten some bad press recently. Would you defend the social media platform?

There is a flip side to these communication tools we have now. But you know, when I first came out, I went around making speeches at schools and universities and any place that would have me. Now [communication] is instantaneous, and it’s global. We should use it, but we should try to get some reasonable, rational control over it. And we should hear people we don’t agree with, too. I’m for a free and open discussion of all ideas.

Pacific Overtures runs through June 18 at Classic Stage in New York.

Elysa Gardner is a former music and theater critic for USA Today, and has also contributed to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and VH1. She also chaired the jury for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
@elysagardner