ON THE RECORD: Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific This week's column discusses cast albums of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, present and past.
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SOUTH PACIFIC [Masterworks Broadway 88697-30457]
Lincoln Center Theater's revival of South Pacific has worked its way into one of Broadway's hottest tickets, and understandably so. The production, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot, has all the emotional pull that the original 1949 production had (or at least apparently so). This was not easy to pull off; the Rodgers-Hammerstein-Logan musical has been absent from Broadway since the show closed two weeks into 1954; this, in great part, because Mr. Rodgers (who died in 1979) and the R & H heirs seem especially protective of this particular property. (The King and I, meanwhile, was revived on Broadway three times during its first 45 years.)

The new cast album of South Pacific is — simply put — quite a treat. The original 1949 cast album is a legendary classic, yes, with all those incomparable songs given distinctive performances by not only Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza but Juanita Hall and Bill Tabbert. That album, originally recorded for release on 78 RPM platters, is 60 years old now, and sounds it. It has undergone all sorts of mechanical amplification and remastering over the years, with the most recent reissue [Sony/Columbia/Legacy SK 60722] indispensable. Nevertheless, it is a relic from days long past.

[Correction: When I last discussed the 1949 album, I mentioned that it was recorded onstage at the Colonial Theatre in Boston while the show was trying out around the block at the Shubert. This was based on a first-person anecdote by a friend of Rodgers which turns out to be inaccurate. The fellow did sit with Rodgers while they played the score on the empty stage of the Colonial, but this was apparently the orchestra reading, when the cast sang through the show with the Boston orchestra prior to the first performance. A memorable event, certainly, but misremembered as the recording session, which actually took place ten days after the Broadway opening at Columbia 30th Street Studio. A couple of readers pointed this out and I would like now to thank them, although several years later I don't remember who they were.]

There have been quite a number of recordings of South Pacific in the interim, my favorite of which had been the Music Theater of Lincoln Center production starring Florence Henderson and Giorgio Tozzi, produced by Mr. Rodgers, across the plaza from the Beaumont, in 1967. Five other New York South Pacifics have been seen at City Center and City Opera, and there have been major touring productions starring the likes of Richard Kiley and Robert Goulet (though not together). The highest profile revival, prior to now, was Trevor Nunn's revised 2001 version at the Royal National Theatre in London [First Night CASTCD84]. All of this brings us back to last April at Lincoln Center, when the current South Pacific swept into town to a rapturous reception. The cast, under Mr. Sher's direction, has been roundly praised. What's more, the score has been handled with care, respect, and love. Every note, it seems, has been given full musical value; what we get is a modern-day equivalent, sonic-wise, of what they did so well on the original Columbia discs.

That the new South Pacific sounds so good — on stage and on CD player — is due in great part to the musicianship of Ted Sperling. These things don't just play themselves; a conductor doesn't merely wave the stick and tell the band how fast to go. (Or shouldn't; some, alas, seem to do just that.) There is a world of feeling in South Pacific, needless to say, and under Sperling's baton that feeling comes through; not only from the musicians, but from the singers. Full credit is due Sperling, with a nod to his tip-top orchestra at the Beaumont. The musicians get a couple of ovations nightly, thanks to Mr. Sher and designer Michael Yeargan, who find a way to spectacularly incorporate them into the proceedings. Let that make up for all those members of Local 802 who are presently playing Broadway shows hidden away in under-stage basements and cramped dressing rooms.

Let us also salute the work of Russell Bennett, one of the finest of the old school of Broadway orchestrators. This is, perhaps, his finest set of charts. The score is loaded with evocative touches: the harp which weaves the spell of "Bali Ha'i"; the violins that heighten the pull of "Some Enchanted Evening"; those plucked strings (with harp) in the verse of "A Wonderful Guy"; the bass drum which drives "Bloody Mary." (I'm also especially partial to the crispy brass accents in the second section of "Carefully Taught," by Don Walker.) Rodgers composed the music, yes, and deserves full credit for the glories of the score. Russell's job was to translate the notes and fill in the spaces in a manner that completed, and enhanced, what was written on the piano arrangement. It all makes for glorious music, and you can hear it especially clearly on this new cast recording, so let's show a little appreciation for Bennett.

We might as well add a word for the perennially overlooked Trude Rittman as well. Rittman was a constant on Rodgers shows, from Carousel on; her name is hidden in small print, but she played an important part in adapting the songs from the piano rack to the stage. That euphoric orchestra swelling that caps the "Twin Soliloquies" is apparently hers, as is the passionate section leading to "Younger Than Springtime" (which is not included on the new recording). Elsewhere, that whole "Do-Re-Mi" sequence with Mary and the kids in The Sound of Music — the music lesson and the Swiss-bellringing — is Trude, working from the basic song material provided by Dick and Oscar. If Rittman was anonymous, her orchestrators recognized her contributions: on the orchestration for the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" ballet in The King and I, Bennett lists the composer as "Trude Rodgers." (Over on Paint Your Wagon, Hans Spialek credits one of the ballets to "Trude's Frederick Loewe.")

In addition to the official cast album, a so-called special edition with bonus tracks is available exclusively through Barnes & Noble. This includes six items such as the brief reprise of "Bali Ha'i" sung by Billis, the brief reprise of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right outa My Hair" sung by Emile, and instrumental tracks of "Wonderful Guy" and "Some Enchanted Evening." Completists might prefer this disc, although in truth it does not include all the music of this production (which would spill over onto a second disc).

There have been more than a few discussions over these last months about Mary & Ezio and Kelli & Paulo. It is safe to say that these are different performances, in different styles, for different times. It is impossible to compare them, but a few words are nevertheless in order. The trouble with analyzing performances that took place long ago — and in this case, before the analyzer was born — is that you can't exactly go out and watch Mary Martin in South Pacific. Or can you?

In a manner of speaking, you can. Historically, producers almost never brought cameras into the theatre to film their shows in performance. This has become an increasingly common occurrence since 1974 or so, with the advent of public television broadcasts and archival tapings; but it virtually never happened back in ye good olde days. For reasons unknown, though, Rodgers & Hammerstein did just that. Not South Pacific on Broadway with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, but the London edition — a virtually identical recreation of the New York production — starring, yes!, Mary Martin. This was a private movie, made solely for what they labeled "library purposes" and not intended for public viewing. It was not filmed in a state-of-the-art manner; much of it comes from a stationery camera sitting in the mezzanine of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, occasionally cutting off heads and feet and such. But it does give us Mary Martin's legendary performance; not a Hollywood version, reconfigured for the screen, but Mary doing precisely what she did on stage when South Pacific first opened.

There is no audience reaction, as the performance was played to an empty house (on May 6, 1952, with the cast holding for applause at the end of each number). We get the full sets and costumes, in black and white; a full orchestra and, on occasion, the conductor's baton darting across the bottom of the screen; and a full cast. Included are three trans-Atlantic transplants from the original Broadway company: Martin; Betta St. John — formerly the Hollywood child actress Betty Jean Striegler, who was 19 when South Pacific opened on Broadway — as Liat; and Archie Savage. Savage was a Katherine Dunham dancer, with a prominent high-kicking specialty in the last section of the "Bloody Mary" number. He was apparently the only trained dancer, and the only non-white man, in the original production. (Savage is best remembered, perhaps, for some artistic studies made of him by famed photographer Carl Van Vechten.) The London Bloody Mary was Muriel Smith, who in 1943 originated the title role in Hammerstein's Carmen Jones and who was to dub the singing voice of Bloody Mary for the 1958 film version of South Pacific. Also in the cast were Peter Grant as Cable, who in real life did indeed marry his Liat, Ms. St. John; Fredd Wayne, who had just taken over Billis from Ray Walston; and, in a show of nepotism, Martin's son Larry Hagman as the sailor who brings Capt. Brackett the shipping box with the grass skirt.

Seeing as how this was Rodgers & Hammerstein's own production of what at the time was seen to be their masterwork, being filmed at their behest for their sole, private use, it is to be assumed that this is South Pacific as it is intended to be.

This is, needless to say, a fascinating record of the original production and the intentions of the Messrs. Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan. (Jerry Whyte, production manager and close associate of Rodgers, was responsible for restaging Logan's work, although Logan is known to have stopped in at Drury Lane.) Standing center stage is Mary Martin's Nellie Forbush. "Knucklehead Nellie," she calls herself, as do her pals. This is not merely an affectation; Mary acts the knucklehead. She is an Ozark girl, all right, a "hick from the stick"; awkward and clumsy, at times she talks and even walks funny. (Some of her movement seems patterned after Charlie Chaplin.) When the nurses congregate, Nellie sticks out; not because she is the prettiest or the youngest or the obvious heroine, as has been the case in all productions that I have seen, but because she is the oddest duck of the lot. "Younger men than I/officers and doctors/probably pursue her/she could have her pick" sings Emile; but that's his somewhat skewed point of view. Nellie is on stage with officers and doctors and Seabees, but the only one of 'em who seems to cast an eye her way — at least as portrayed by Mary Martin in the original production — is Luther Billis, the Bert Lahr-type buffoon who looks at her with puppy-dog eyes. In most musicals, the young and romantic leading-man-type Joe Cable would be the obvious guy for Nellie; here, though, he doesn't show the slightest interest.

Why would a distinguished French planter fall for this girl? Because she is exotic to him, for starters, in the same way that the Tonkinese mother of his children was exotic. This brings us to the second major observation from watching the film of the 1949 production. Emile de Becque is old. In today's world of 60-year-olds with young wives and second families this is commonplace, but not in 1950. Back then, 50 was the age of grandparents; Pinza, when the show opened, was 57. Mary was 36; 21 years younger by the calendar but playing a character a good ten years younger than that. (Mary went on to play the ageless Peter Pan at 41 and the teenaged Maria von Trapp at 46.) So what you have is not a romantic leading man falling for the leading lady; you have a fellow heading into old age, falling for a woman some 30 years his junior. This Nellie is knuckleheaded and awkward and bordering on Judy Canova, but to Emile she is — to borrow a phrase — younger than springtime.

Pinza did not appear in the London production; few theatregoers saw him in the role, actually, as he left the show after little more than a year. (Mary played it more than two years in New York, and one in London.) The West End Emile — who goes uncredited on the title page of the Drury Lane program that is displayed during the overture — was Wilbur Evans, leading man of moderate Broadway hits like Cole Porter's 1942 Mexican Hayride and the 1946 Romberg operetta Up in Central Park. Evans, in 1952, was only 47, but with a head of white hair he looks even older than Pinza. (In the London film, he looks about 15 years older than he appears to be in production photos for the 1954 musical By the Beautiful Sea; it seems that they purposely made him up to appear way older than Mary's Nellie.) So the age difference between the knucklehead hick and cultured Frenchman appears to have been built into the authors' conception of the piece. Mind you, Broadway in this period saw several musicals in which twentyish girls fall in love with fiftyish men. All of which, curiously enough, were written by fiftyish men. There is no 20-or-30-year age gap between Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot; more like six or seven years. This turns out not to matter much; what this pair has is what Sky Masterson used to call chemistry (yeah, chemistry). Would the age difference angle even work, nowadays? It apparently didn't with the Messrs. Kiley and Goulet, and I suppose we should leave it at that. Neither is Ms. O'Hara directed to be as corny as all Kansas, Arkansas and Iowa combined; she is simply an average American Just Like Us, perhaps resulting in making the prejudices revealed beneath the surface more personally felt by members of the audience. A different interpretation than the Martin-Pinza pairing, yes, but from the vantage point of 2008 just as strong.

Mr. Sher has made a few changes here and there, but always tastefully so; for the most part, he gives us South Pacific as it was. Most noticeable of the alterations is the insertion of a song that Rodgers & Hammerstein saw fit to delete, "My Girl Back Home." This was originally used in the second act, just after "Honey Bun." Nellie finds Cable escaped from the hospital, where he had been in a feverish delirium babbling about some girl; Nellie asks if he has had bad news about his girl back home, which brings Cable's rueful reply. After the song he tells Nellie about Liat, and she recoils in horror. ("The way you look now is the way my mother would look," he says, angrily challenging Nellie: "Why do you look so damned shocked?")

This exchange, reinforcing Nellie's less verbal reaction to the news from Emile, was apparently deemed to be unnecessary, so the song was sent to the trunk. (It was used in the 1958 motion picture, in a different context.) Sher inserts "My Girl Back Home" into the first act, before the question of intermarriage has been raised. It gives Nellie and Cable more of a relationship than they had in 1949, bringing with it a moment of lightheartedness. The restored song neither adds nor detracts from the overall piece, although it does somewhat lengthen the first act.

It can, however, be a dangerous thing to allow modern-day interpreters to restore material that the authors saw fit to cut; these decisions were usually made for a pretty good reason. Consider Hammerstein and Logan's original ending, which appears in their preliminary script of Jan. 11, 1949 (about eight weeks before the first performance). As the Seabees prepare to ship out, Cable comes back from Marie Louise Island — alive! "Jeez, we all thought you was dead!" says Billis. "I have been, dead and buried. But they dug me up again" says Cable — who immediately arranges to go back to Bali Ha'i, with a priest, to marry Liat. Which would make for a rather different South Pacific, don't you think?

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)