The return of South Pacific

Last month, AussieTheatre attended an exclusive lunch with Lisa McCune, Christine Anu and Gyton Grantley, hosted by Opera Australia to celebrate the return of South Pacific to the Sydney Opera House. We got their thoughts on the show and the upcoming season.

South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush. Image by Kurt Sneddon

When Opera Australia announced in late 2011 they were to co-produce South Pacific at the Sydney Opera House with John Frost, nobody could have foreseen just how critically and commercially successful the production would be for the company.

While the 2008 Broadway revival upon which this production is based swept the Tony Awards and won massive critical acclaim, a Rogers and Hammerstein musical isn’t necessarily a safe bet down under in the 2010s. The 2008 revival thrived on Bartlett Sher’s richly detailed direction and performances from Kelli O’Hara, Paulo Szot and a then relatively unknown Matthew Morrison. Only one of those elements, Sher’s direction, was to make it down under.

But with a cast led by Australian television golden girl Lisa McCune and superstar baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the show soon found its audience and became the highest selling show ever at the Sydney Opera House. The story of love, war and racial tension, combined with the score played by a 34-piece orchestra saw most critics label the show as the best musical of the year. AussieTheatre’s Cassie Tongue called it ‘a flawless production’.

After successful seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane, South Pacific returns to its home at the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House in September. This time, the show will run for two months, double the length of its original sell-out season. Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes are to return to their roles as Nellie and Emile, but Sydney audiences will get the chance to see Christine Anu and Gyton Grantley as Bloody Mary and Luther Billis, who joined the cast during the Brisbane season.

In spite of her busy schedule and success onscreen, Lisa McCune says she’s thrilled to be returning to the role that some critics have said is her best performance yet. She believes the key to making South Pacific work lies in the more sensitive dramatic material underneath the light and fun musical numbers. Her character learns to overcome an underlying prejudice, and director Bartlett Sher wanted absolute truth in that prejudice.

[pull_left]I guess when you have an entire audience gasp in horror because of something you’ve uttered onstage, it’s quite confronting[/pull_left]

“Towards the end of Act I, Bart really wanted me to send home that whole racism prong,” she says. “I guess when you have an entire audience gasp in horror because of something you’ve uttered onstage, it’s quite confronting. It was great to make the audience sit and think about these issues and it was great that we dealt with that on a musical theatre stage.”

But like most Rogers and Hammerstein pieces, there is a happy, hopeful ending, which McCune says is a joy to play.

“My favourite part of the show is the final scene. It’s so moving, I would be sobbing at the end of the second act some nights with the children.”

Christine Anu and Gyton Grantley will star in South Pacific. Photo by Kurt Sneddon
Christine Anu and Gyton Grantley will star in the return season of South Pacific . Photo by Kurt Sneddon

While McCune had plenty of time to work with the director and the company throughout the whole rehearsal period, Christine Anu and Gyton Grantley had a somewhat different experience.

“Insane!” exclaims Anu when asked what the rehearsal period was like. “In one word, insane. Everyone else had already done a hundred shows by then and you’re just flying in at the last minute. We had to learn with directors in mirrors and when I finally got to meet Lisa on the day we got to perform with the cast, it was in a darkened theatre and all of a sudden it was very scary.”

Although she was pushed through a very limited rehearsal period and met most of the cast on the day of her first performance, Anu says the experience has been massively fulfilling and allowed her to step outside of her comfort zone as a performer.

“Bloody Mary is a very meaty acting role,” she says. “I couldn’t be the glamorous me. I get so jealous watching Lisa in all her costumes. Everyone else gets to dress up and look so immaculately beautiful in these lovely period wigs and I just look like this ugly troll. I can’t wait to pretty myself up every night after the show.”

As Mary, Anu wears a long, straight black wig and has blackened teeth. She’s almost unrecognisable as the pop diva who made My Island Home famous.

“I get to transform in the true sense and become somebody different for two hours. I get to really pull out my acting chops, to bring out this dark side.”

One actor who is no stranger to darker roles is Gyton Grantley who plays the wheeling and dealing Luther Billis, played in the original Sydney season by Eddie Perfect. Audiences would know him best from his television work, including his star-making role as Carl Williams in the original Underbelly and his current role on House Husbands.

In his first professional musical theatre role (he’s quick to point out he played Bernardo in his high school production of West Side Story) Grantley gets one of the show’s most iconic musical moments in There Is Nothing Like a Dame, the song he was asked to audition with.

Christine Anu, Gyton Grantley, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune in South Pacific.
Christine Anu, Gyton Grantley, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune are the leading cast in South Pacific’s 2013 return season. Image by Kurt Sneddon

“After the audition, I said, ‘Thanks guys, that was an experience,’” he says. “I think because I learnt it off the internet I had the wrong timing or something. I then had another meeting which was over Skype and then before I knew it I was part of the company and learning lines and getting ready to meet everyone in Brisbane.”

Like Anu, Grantley found himself stepping massively outside his comfort zone, performing not only in a new medium but as a character unlike any he’s played before.

“A lot of my friends in Brisbane who had grown up with me said they found it one of my best performances from their perspective. Obviously they know me that well, so to see me as someone else, someone so different to myself, they found that quite entertaining and fascinating.”

Grantley had the opportunity to work with director Bartlett Sher for only a few days while in Brisbane but is looking forward to having him back in Sydney to re-launch the show and bring everyone back up to speed for the Opera House.

When Sher first stepped into the Joan Sutherland Theatre, he said it was the perfect musical theatre house. Although it has its limitations when producing grand opera, Sher said that the theatre has an intimacy that most Broadway theatres lack, which is perhaps part of the reason the first season was so rapturously received.

This will be the first time Grantley has played the Sydney Opera House. He says that for any actor, let alone a first time musical theatre actor it’s a big deal. “It’s one of those boxes you get excited about ticking as an actor.”

South Pacific plays the Sydney Opera House from September 8 before playing Perth’s Crown Theatre from November 10. More information and tickets can be found at

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