Cups of tea, history, and Sondheim's "Someone in a Tree"

by Victoria Aschheim

"In one song Sondheim encompasses the fallibility of human memory, the sense that history is a compound of minute particles, the whole philosophic question of whether an event exists if it is unrecorded." – Michael Billington on Pacific OverturesAs the class percussionist for Literature and Arts B-85, American Musicals and American Culture taught by Professor Carol J. Oja, where live art-making is an integral part of the classroom experience, I, along with class pianist Jesse Wong ’12, have the joy of being the in-house band for a revolving cast of volunteer singers, all members of the class, performing treasures of the American musical theater repertoire. Lit. and Arts B-85 Teaching Fellow, Ryan Bañagale, reflected on Professor Oja's vision of live performance in the class: "To rely simply on recordings diminishes the experience, and we are fortunate to have a wealth of talented undergrads willing to perform." I have loved every song I've accompanied this semester, but this week I was particularly moved by a piece new to me, and it’s been on repeat on my iPod since Sunday. Join me in the musical and cultural world of Stephen Sondheim’s "Someone in a Tree," performed in class on April 8.My first impression of the song was that it resembles "minimalist music" – taking a chord and making variations on it with the rhythm and texture kaleidoscopically shimmering and shifting. Sondheim himself compares "Someone in a Tree" to Steve Reich’s music: "His version is far more sophisticated, but it’s the same thing.""Someone in a Tree" evokes the simplicity and purity of Japanese art. "I’m a fragment of the day," sings the Old Man. "I’m the fragment underneath," sings the Samurai Warrior. The possibility of fragmentation in historical memory is set forth, but the importance to historical documentation of even the smallest detail related by the individual shines through Sondheim’s lyrics. The enchanting song from Pacific Overtures, the 1976 Broadway musical, is a reenactment of the memory of witnesses to Commodore Perry’s first steps onto Kanagawa in 1853 and the negotiations forcibly opening the then-isolated land of Japan to the West and Western influences. Commodore Perry’s journal records on July 14, 1853, that he hopes the Japanese will accept the "pacific overtures."The Japanese version of the history of that 1853 day is reconstructed in the song from witness recollections to the "Treaty House" negotiations between the Japanese and the Americans. "Someone in a Tree" is based on the idea that there should be an authentic Japanese account of the events of the fateful day. The official Shogun Councillors’ Japanese version was kept secret, and the Americans had their own version of events. To obtain a Japanese version, fragments of memory are gleaned from the testimony of the witnesses, an Old Man (at the time of the event in 1853, he was a ten-year-old boy) and a Samurai Warrior guard complete, with a "sword inside [his] sheath," who was hidden beneath the treaty house as a source of protection for the Japanese negotiators. One witness looking back tells what he sees from his hiding place in the tree he climbed as a ten year old boy – "I saw everything" – and the other, unable to see events from his hiding place, tells only what he hears – "I can’t see anything, but I can hear...since I hear them they are there."Though the Old Man's memory wavers, the song conveys that there must be witness testimony to history to make history complete: "Without someone in the tree, nothing happened here." The fragmented observations comprise "only a fragment of the day," only "a pebble, not the stream," but such recollections are part of what makes history.A hybrid of Japanese Kabuki theater and Broadway musical theater, "Someone in a Tree" features imagery transcending time, with the three witnesses (Old Man, the Old Man as a ten year old boy, and Warrior) all in dialogue in the present, all recounting their memories to the Reciter of that past fateful day, making them part of history. "I was part of the event," the Old Man sings with certainty. Later he sings: "If it happened, I was there!" turning memory upside down, but slowly building documentation of the event during the question-and-answer format in the song.Ryan Bañagale, who presented Thursday's lecture, expressed to me that it was "doubly important for 'Someone in a Tree' to be performed live today, to demonstrate the musical complexity of the piece, which on first listening appears to be simple." Below, watch the performance featuring Ben Nelson ‘11 (left) and Patrick Wicker ’13. The innovative Literature and Arts B-85 meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon in Harvard Hall 201. []

[Caption: The original Broadway production]

[Caption: Playbill image from a Broadway revival]