ON THE RECORD: 1960's revivals of South Pacific and The King and I

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: 1960's revivals of South Pacific and The King and I This week's column discusses the revival cast albums of the Music Theater of Lincoln Center productions of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific and the The King and I.
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SOUTH PACIFIC [Masterworks Broadway 82876-88393]
It has taken a mighty long time, but Sony – or, rather, the new Masterworks Broadway – has finally gotten around to releasing the 1967 Columbia cast recording of South Pacific. This was the Music Theater of Lincoln Center production, produced by Richard Rodgers at the New York State Theater, starring Florence Henderson and Giorgio Tozzi.

I'm not about to stand on a limb and call this the finest recording of South Pacific extant; fans of Mary Martin would probably shower me with invective. What this recording has, though, is the music performed precisely as I suppose it was intended. The presence of the composer and orchestrator 18 years later does not necessarily count for much, as we have heard in any number of revivals. But in this case, it seems like every nuance is brought out impeccably, including many that are hardly audible on the original 1949 cast recording.

This is perhaps Russell Bennett at his very best, with a strong yet understated orchestration that is considerably more nuanced than usual for the master. We recently heard a very good presentation of the music in the hands of Paul Gemignani, in the McEntire/Stokes Mitchell Carnegie Hall recording; but that disc is marred by snippets of dialogue (which, alas, has been "improved" by hands other than Hammerstein and Josh Logan). If the 1967 South Pacific is not the finest ever, I don't know when the music sounded better.

That leaves us comparing the singers. Mary and Ezio created the roles, and their interpretations are no doubt cemented into our minds. Even so, Florence Henderson makes a very fine Nellie. This is a crisp, well-enunciated performance, and might well be what Rodgers and Hammerstein had in mind for their leading ladies. Rodgers discovered Henderson in 1952 as an 18-year-old chorus girl in Joshua Logan's Wish You Were Here. When R&H spruced up the National Company of Oklahoma! for its 1953 New York return engagement, the teen-aged Henderson was given the role of Laurey (with Barbara Cook as her Ado Annie). Henderson became a Broadway star with the title role in the 1954 Josh Logan (non-Rodgers & Hammerstein) musical Fanny. In 1961, Henderson headed the national company of The Sound of Music for Rodgers, and six years later she was doing the Music Theater South Pacific.

Giorgio Tozzi, too, makes a pretty good Emile. Not comparable to Pinza, I suppose, but Tozzi — who dubbed the singing for Rossano Brazzi in the film version — puts his heart into it. Every word is strong and clear, and he seems somewhat warmer than Pinza. Justin McDonough does pretty well as Cable; Irene Byatt does well enough as Bloody Mary, though lacking the buoyancy of Juanita Hall; and the Billis is — well, David Doyle gets through it. With the retirement of my turntable, I stopped listening to this album years ago. On hearing it once again, I find it just as good as remembered. This South Pacific belongs on the shelf alongside the Music Theater of Lincoln Center's 1965 Carousel and Shirley Jones-Jack Cassidy studio cast recording of Brigadoon; three non-original Broadway cast albums that enhance the enjoyment of the scores.

THE KING AND I [Masterworks/Broadway 82876-88400]
Rodgers and Bennett were similarly on hand for the 1964 revival of The King and I. This was the premiere attraction of the Music Theater series, intended to fill the summer months at the New York State Theater in the spanking new Lincoln Center.

Rodgers was appointed president and producing director, with the assignment of two revivals a season; the first offerings were The King and I, followed by The Merry Widow (starring Patrice Munsel). Future seasons included the other three classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as well as such titles as Kismet (starring Alfred Drake), Show Boat, West Side Story, and Ethel Merman re-creating her Annie Get Your Gun. (During this period, Rodgers wrote and produced only one musical, Do I Hear a Waltz, in 1965.) By 1969, the Music Theater idea had faded, terminating with an undistinguished Oklahoma!

As with Music Theater's South Pacific, The King and I gives us a chance to hear a classic score – originally recorded under relatively primitive conditions – once again under the composer's control. The 1964 revival cast album, originally recorded by RCA, does give us a much better hearing of the orchestrations; and it includes considerably more of the score (featuring the first recording of Trude Rittman's ballet music for "The Small House of Uncle Thomas"). But listening to this King and I is pretty much the opposite of the South Pacific experience.

The recording is excessively marred by the leads. Darren McGavin, as the King, is obviously not a singer. This is not enough to disqualify him from playing the role; I suppose Rex Harrison could have done it handily enough. (Rex played the King in the film version of the property, before R & H got around to musicalizing it.) In any case, McGavin's performance – if you can call it a performance – is quite off-putting. More surprising, I suppose, is Metropolitan Opera star Risë Stevens. She can indeed sing, yes, and far better than the questionably pitched Gertrude Lawrence who created the role (and instigated the project). But Stevens – who did such a fine job on the 1963 studio cast album of Lady in the Dark — sounds like an opera singer here, and she doesn't sound like Anna Leonowens. This might be a question of age; Stevens was 51 at the time. Whatever the reason, we have a King and I that suffers whenever the King, or the I, are singing. Take it from there.

You do get to hear the ballet, yes, as well as the supposed comedy number for Lady Thiang and the wives, "Western People Funny" (which offers proof that everything that rolled off the music rack of Rodgers and Hammerstein was not golden). Patricia Neway – of The Consul and The Sound of Music – plays Thiang, while the young lovers counseled in Anna's song ("Hello, Young Lovers") are Lee Venora and Frank Porretta. All told, this is not the happiest King and I, nor the best presentation of the score. Me, I think I'll stick to the 1977 Broadway revival starring Yul Brynner and Constance Towers.

Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.