South Pacific: Return of one of the Greats

South PacificI have been more than a little irritated by some of the comments I have picked up in the last few weeks regarding the revival by Opera Australia and John Frost of the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s almighty classic South Pacific.

As actors all over the countryside prepare for auditions which are about to begin for this show, I have heard the term “old school” mentioned a lot. This seems to be part of the new jargon of young music theatre students particularly those out of drama schools. Any older musical or in fact any musical with a bouncy musical comedy style score, seems these days to be damned by the term “old school”. I am not sure what this means; does it mean a musical that could by that definition be “new school” has to be either very pop oriented, or try to ape Sondheim and feature witty, non rhyming lyrics (something most people including many of the so-called new generation of Broadway composers, do very badly-listen to that classic cabaret song ‘Everybody Wants to be Sondheim But Me’).

The truth is South Pacific is a classic, but what some of these bright young students don’t seem to realise, is that it is considered one of the almighty classics that display more perfection in its writing and score than most musicals of its own, or for that matter, any period.

I am an unapologetic fan of most of the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I believe their musicals stand the test of time more than many written in recent years as has been proven by the amount of fine directors who have given new life to them in a variety of productions. But none more so than South Pacific, for it dealt head-on with racism in a way that no musicals before (and few since) have done. The Lincoln Center revival, of which this new Australian production will be a carbon-copy, gave probably the best production of this musical I have ever seen (and I have seen quite a few). Bartlett Sher (who will direct the Oz production) toughened up the book and really highlighted the subject of racism more than any previous version.

Oscar Hammerstein was a writer and lyricist well ahead of his time and he and Richard Rodgers invited much criticism and controversy in the way they tackled the issue of race bias in this show. The song ‘Carefully Taught’, is, I believe one of the greatest songs ever written for the stage. It is a concise, perfectly structured two minute song of sheer genius, that conveys a message so timely that it should be on the desks of every politician and person in office anywhere in the world. When the character of Lt Cable sings it in the show he sums up his racial bias, the racial bias of the other major character in the show, (namely Nellie Forbush, who breaks up a relationship because of her racist beliefs) and it is the song which is the theme and the central focus of the musical. When it was first included in the show, there was a tide of criticism and an attempt to remove it, yet the authors stood firm and it is believed it is one of the reasons the musical received the Pulitzer Prize that year.

Barlett Sher pulls no punches in accentuating the racism of his two central wasp characters. The original movie skimmed over it a little and several other productions fail to hit the nail on the head when Nellie realises her potential lover and husband has not only had sexual relations but was married to an islander woman.  “She was coloured” Nellie cries in utmost horror at the end of Act One when she hears Emile De Becque introduce his two young islander children. On the night I saw the show on Broadway there was an audible gasp of horror at the way Nellie (superbly played on broadway by Kellie O Hara) performed that moment. What is this? Our little-hometown little-rock heroine, our virginal princess who can do no wrong is suddenly tarred with an ugly and unpleasant brush.

It takes most of Act two for audiences in this version to forgive Nellie for that moment and it is only when the character makes her powerful and dramatic statement realising her small minded mistake and begging for the life of the man she loves, that an audience can accept her again. Similarly the character of Cable rejects the beautiful islander girl Liat as someone he could not possibly marry and take back home to small town America as his wife. He has a quicker and more passionate realisation of his mistake, but sadly doesn’t live to give his girl the happy ending she deserves.
These themes were so ahead of their time in small minded post-war America when the show opened in 1949. Yet they reflected a change in attitude which would be demonstrated in many musicals during the years to come.

The big criticism of South Pacific has often been that the second act falls away. Most of the important action occurs off-stage as De Becque and Cable hide from the Japanese and give information that changes the tide of the war to soldiers on the island. This is still something of a problem with the show, but the Lincoln Center production moves these periods along very quickly with maximum suspense and tension.
For those auditioning for this show, they are very lucky that the Lincoln Center production was filmed for television and even though (very sadly) it has not been released on DVD, the entire version is readily available to watch on you tube. This gives anyone auditioning for the show an excellent idea of the way this new production handles the script .

It also gives people a chance to see some of the extraordinary performances most notably Kellie O Hara’s carefully structured, perfectly realised Nellie and Danny Bustein’s beautifully comic Luther Billis. I felt this version made Cable a little too tough, rough and cynical in the early parts which seemed at odds with his sweetness and innocence when he meets Liat and sings ‘Younger than Springtime’. Matthew Morrison (of Glee fame) created this role in the original revival, but the actor playing it on the video (the same one I saw in the theatre) seems a little too gung-ho and Rambo-like for the softness and sensitivity needed for the character’s later transitions. Let’s hope this is addressed and changed in the Australian production.

For those preparing for the show there are other versions easily available to watch; of course the original and best much loved 1958 film version with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. This is the most known version, but comes across a little too coy and sentimental for today’s audiences (albeit the best looking version, scenery wise) Then there is the much criticised 2000 made for TV Glenn Close version.  I watched this version again before writing this article and it is probably better than it was considered to be at the time of its release. It restructured and re-wrote much of the script. Yes, Glenn Close was much too old for Nellie (a real indulgence on her part as a producer of the film) and the scenes between Liat and Cable are truly awful. (The way they are directed makes Liat appear to be the local islander whore) but this version makes the action very up front and centre and the big production numbers are handled with a great deal of lively choregraphy. Many well known music theatre performers also pop up in this version, Natalie Mendoza most notably as Liat, but also watch out for David Harris, Troy Sussman, Margi De Ferranti, Helen Dallimore, Brendan Hanson and many more. It was all filmed in and round Cairns,Port Douglas and local islands.

The other version worth a look is the recent concert version on DVD which was one of the motivators of making the Lincoln Center version happen. Starring (an overwrought) Reba McIntire, Brian Stokes Mitchell (a vocally wonderful Emile), Lillias White as Bloody Mary and Alec Baldwin as Billis, this version (filmed in Carneige Hall) is restricted by the concert nature of the production, but has some highly theatrical moments (and one that doesnt work at all when Nellie has to say the famous “coloured” line to Stokes Mitchell).

And finally a bit of history of this wonderful musical; it was first produced in the early fifites in Australia with a mostly imported cast (which was the way of the time). For movie buffs its interesting to note Mary La Roche played the role of Nellie (later in her career she played Ann Margret’s mother in the classic movie version of Bye Bye Birdie).This version did star local actor David Williams as Cable, who went on to great success in the Australian industry as an actor, producer and journalist. Chin Yu who was imported for the role of Liat, fell in love with her Cable, married him and the two lived and worked in Australia for the rest of their days. (Chin Yu Williams only died very recently)
Unlike Broadway who had to wait 52 years for a major stage revival, Australia has had two major productions, the John Frost 1994 version that starred (very controversially) a very imported Paige O’Hara as Nellie (for reasons no one could adequately explain) and Phillip Gould as Cable. John Diedrich starred in simultaneously directed a 2004/5 scaled down version for the Production Company, which also starred Katrina Retallick as Nellie, April Marie Neho as Mary and Conrad Coleby (later Hayden Tee) as Cable. This version also played Sydney and Adelaide.

One final interesting local side note. Well before the recent revival, there was a one night only special 50th anniversary concert performed in New York in 1999. Many of the original Broadway cast were on stage and sang in this production. It starred George Hearn as Emile, Liz Callaway as Nellie and David Campbell as Cable!

Long may South Pacific continue to flourish, one of the truly great Broadway musicals of which there are few to even begin to come close to matching it these days. The Australian production will be a great success for Opera Australia and then (as strongly rumoured) in a national tour which is sure to follow.  Further Reading:

South Pacific in OA’s Lineup  Quick Guide to OA 2012  Montage from the Lincoln Centre Production   Photo courtesy of:


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