Tale of Two Matinees: Chicago Hits 1,000 and Phantom Recalls South Pacific

News   Tale of Two Matinees: Chicago Hits 1,000 and Phantom Recalls South Pacific
 
Audiences at the April 7 matinees of Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway might have been expecting pleas to donate to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS when the curtain calls were quieted for announcements.

Phantom Hugh Panaro with the original cast members of South Pacific.
Phantom Hugh Panaro with the original cast members of South Pacific. Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Audiences at the April 7 matinees of Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway might have been expecting pleas to donate to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS when the curtain calls were quieted for announcements.

But, then, the theatre is supposed to be about surprise.

Theatregoers learned from the company of Chicago at the Shubert Theatre that the matinee was the 1,000th performance of the John Kander-Fred Ebb revival. Director Walter Bobbie appeared and thanked the company, the audience and introduced Sandy Duncan and Ruthie Henshall, who will move into the roles of Roxie and Velma, respectively, May 25.

Producer Barry Weissler also appeared on stage, with a cake commemorating the event. He and wife Fran Weissler are responsible for lifting what was a 1996 staged concert by "Encores!" at City Center. The production transferred famously to Broadway, earning a Best Musical Revival Tony Award.

Bobbie said the musical currently has stagings in London, Sydney, Vienna, Sweden, and two North American tours, including a sitdown in Las Vegas. A Holland staging is in rehearsal. A few doors down, at the Majestic Theatre, an emotional Hugh Panaro, still in his Phantom mask, told the after-show crowd: "Fifty years ago today one of Broadway's greatest musicals opened on this very stage, starring Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza and Juanita Hall. The musical was Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific."

The audience, made up of many young people who never heard the words "South Pacific" but were accompanied by older folks who knew the classic, burst into applause. The crowd gasped when it was learned that members of the original company were in the Majestic's wings.

Panaro, who seemed touched by the endurance of both the musical and the kindred spirits of the former cast, said, "We think they deserve another bow."

Cheers greeted some 30 cast members from the original cast and the replacement cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific, 1949-54. The performers, including BarBara Luna (the original Ngana) and Betta St. John (the original Liat), beamed from the stage. The Phantom cast handed each performer a long-stemmed rose.

Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, read a letter from Phantom of the Opera director Harold Prince, who, it was revealed, was introduced to future collaborator Stephen Sondheim at the opening night of South Pacific, April 7, 1949.

"Bravo, South Pacific," wrote Prince. "Congratulations to your enduring cast and thanks for pointing the way to the future..." It was Josh Logan's cinematic, seamless staging that so impressed Hal Prince's boss at the time, director George Abbott. Prince's work as a director has been all about the melding and shifting of stage pictures.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proclaimed April 7 "South Pacific 50th Anniversary Day."

The Majestic sound system rang with songs from the original cast album of South Pacific as theatregoers filed out.

The curtain call was followed by a private dinner at Sardi's for the reunited cast.

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