"Most people long for another island," according to the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork, South Pacific, and on March 26, that island comes alive in an ABC-TV movie musical version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage show.
TV ads for the new three-hour telepic, starring Glenn Close as Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush, suggest the serious tone of an epic World War II picture. To the uninitiated, the musical does indeed have that: Tears, laughter, romance, the threat of battle, and disparate characters thrown together on the edge of the world in a time of tumult.
And, yes, there is that classic score. In this singular war movie, directed by Richard Pearce, a Marine lieutenant named Joe Cable (played by Harry Connick Jr.) sings "Younger Than Springtime" of his native island love, Liat (Natalie Mendoza); rowdy Seabees (including Robert Pastorelli as Luther Billis) bellow, "There Is Nothing Like a Dame"; and nurse Nellie and transplanted Frenchman Emile de Becque (Rade Sherbedgia) fall in love and muse about "Some Enchanted Evening."
Close, no stranger to musical theatre, starred on Broadway as Charity Barnum in the Cy Coleman musical, Barnum and in Broadway's Sunset Boulevard. She also starred in Broadway's original run of The Real Thing, but would gain international fame and respect as a film actress ("The World According to Garp," The Big Chill," "Fatal Attraction"). She is also one of the executive producers on the new TV film, whose official title is "Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific."
Co-star Sherbedgia appeared in the films "Snatch," "Eyes Wide Shut," "Mission: Impossible 2," "The Saint" and "Before the Rain," and played classical and contemporary roles in London and elsewhere. The television event — dovetailing with recent interest in the World War II era ("The Greatest Generation," "Saving Private Ryan") — airs 8 PM (ET) March 26 on ABC. Check local listings for time and channel in your area.
Co-producer and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and his partner Michael Gore, both of White Cap Productions, came up with the idea of a new and cinematically revised TV film of the stage show four years ago. Their goal from the beginning was to "reconstruct" and "deconstruct" the musical so that it made sense in today's cinematic, visual terms. Cohen told Playbill On-Line this new version attempts to rectify what many — including Cohen and Gore — considered a disappointing, stodgy 1958 film (directed by Josh Logan and starring Mitzi Gaynor). It's generally thought the impact of the story and setting was blunted in the Logan film by a lack of naturalistic acting and directorial choices; the director didn't "open up" the story for film.
"That was part of what inspired us," said Cohen. "There is a lot of feeling that the old film was a transposition of the original material...just plunked on a beach on Hawaii."
The original film continues to disappoint and mystify viewers with its conscious artistic decision to use colored filters over the lens during some of the musical numbers (muting the natural beauty of the locale).
Cohen said he and producing partner Gore, the composer who won Oscars for "Fame" and has scored other pictures, "had both grown up listening to the Broadway cast album and loved it as kids. It was an absolute favorite of both of ours. Like a lot of Broadway shows that were bought by Hollywood, it wasn't that successful."
For the new film, the storytelling may have changed, Cohen said, but the story is essentially the same. Scenes and songs have been somewhat rearranged, but the main plots are intact: Joe Cable falls for a Tonkinese girl when stationed in the South Pacific during an island-hopping mission, and he struggles with his feelings of racism. Small-town Nellie also questions herself when she discovers that de Becque has bi-racial children from his past marriage to a native woman.
A military mission involving Cable and de Becque threatens the futures of all four, and the happiness of Liat's capitalistic, pushy island mother, Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn).
The first half hour is newly scripted and arranged ("There is Nothin' Like a Dame" is the opening number) and final half hour is newly imagined (with graphic scenes of war, including a plane crash). There are also images of segregated troops in the film, underlining the racial questions and ironies of the plot. When the producers brought the idea to The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which controls and promotes R&H shows, the shorthand pitch was that this new film would be along the lines of "China Beach — the Musical" or "War and Remembrance — the Musical"; Smart, serious, real.
"They trusted us to take this incredible piece of material and give it another life and another context," Cohen said.
Cohen explained that one of the things he sought to do was to show what was merely referenced in the stage version. Thus, the dangerous military intelligence mission is more fully explored, as is the first meeting between Nellie and Emile, "across a crowded room."
"We looked at [the project] as if it had never been done before [on film]," said Cohen.
The TV film has a restrained, naturalistic quality both in its singing and its storytelling. Sherbedgia's de Becque is less an opera singer in the Pinza and Rossano Brazzi (who was dubbed by Giorgio Tozzi) mold and more a ruminative, gentle high baritone.
Critic Leonard Maltin, writing about the first picture, said "it needs dynamic personalities to make it catch fire," and "even [the] location filming is lackluster." Early reviews of the new TV pic have been raves, particularly in Newsweek. Internet chat room visitors have grumbled that Close is too old for the role of Nellie Forbush, who, in the song, "A Cock-Eyed Optimist," is described as "immature and incurably green." Cohen said the "May-December" romance plot point in 1949 and 1958 has less resonance with audiences today and it was cut. Nellie is ageless, in effect. Close was the first actress Cohen and Gore thought of — an actress who could play the depth of the personal struggle, but could also sing.
The new screenplay by Cohen ("Stephen King's It") draws on the 1949 stage musical by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist and co-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (stage director Josh Logan shares credit on book, too), but also uses some elements from the James Michener collection of stories, "Tales of the South Pacific," the source for the show. The stage musical won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza starred.
The score — including "Bali Ha'i," "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," "This Nearly Was Mine," "A Wonderful Guy," "Dites Moi" — remains intact, except for "Happy Talk," which is heard as an instrumental. "My Girl Back Home" (for Cable and Nellie) was scripted and filmed but cut due to time constraints. It appears in the DVD release and on the CD release.
According to ABC production notes, here are some facts and figures:
• 65 speaking cast members in the film (not including "singing extras").
• 44 days of filming in Australia and Tahiti.
• 2,226 extras are seen in the film.
• In order to create the atmosphere of a working military base, the filmmakers needed every available male extra they could find, recruiting virtually all willing, able-bodied men in the region (including backpacking tourists who got haircuts and quick dance lessons).
• 3 days of helicopter shoots were cancelled due to wind and weather.
• "Honey Bun" is the largest production number in the picture, with more than 400 extras.
• 301 crew members contributed to the picture, excluding post production.
• 39 sets were built for the movie.
• The "source" music playing in the officers' club are all Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes heard in instrumental versions: "My Girl Back Home," "Happy Talk," "Loneliness of Evening" and "You Never Had It So Good" (originally in "State Fair").
Vincent Paterson choreographs. Director of photography, capturing the luminous blue of the sky and ocean, is Steve Windon. Production Designer is Patrizia Von Brandenstein ("Amadeus"). Executive producers are Glenn Close, Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein, Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore. Christine Sacani is producer.
For more information, visit the "South Pacific" site.
— By Kenneth Jones