"South Pacific" 60th Anniversary Reunion

Tomorrow night, the smash-hit revival of South Pacific celebrates its first anniversary at the Vivian Beaumont. However, on Tuesday the musical itself celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. The show originally opened on April 7, 1949 at the Majestic Theatre starring Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, Myron McCormack and Juanita Hall, all of whom would win Tonys (still the only production, musical or play, to sweep all four acting categories!). The show closed at the Broadway Theatre on January 16, 1954 after 1925 performances.

Meanwhile yesterday at the Vivian Beaumont, there was a reunion of the surviving cast members. Here is a brief video montage showing the mingling of casts old and new.

It’s opening night…!

As I embark on the beginning of what could be a delightful year-end glut of theatre, I will be venturing down to the Booth Theatre for the opening night of LCT’s production of Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate. This will also mark the first time I’ll be seeing Elizabeth Ashley and Penny Fuller live in performance, which makes up a great deal of the excitement I’m feeling. It also marks my first opening since I was at the Vivian Beaumont last April for South Pacific.

"Where I went one day…"

I’m not sure what it was about the revival of South Pacific that got my father interested in the notion of going to see it. I think part of it stemmed from my overwhelming and enthusiastic response to the show after I saw it on opening night last April. That was the first time that I noticed he was genuinely listening to what I had to say about the show I’d seen. My parents just know I go and see shows and that it’s my thing. My mother enjoys a good show, but is rather wary of venturing down to NYC. The incongruity here lies in her completely unfazed attitude at flying around the country on exotic vacations at the drop of a hat. (There was less drama about her flying out to the Philippines for the birth of her grandson than driving down to Manhattan last Tuesday evening). Neither had ever seen a Broadway show. Until now.

My father’s favorite movie is The Sound of Music. One of his other favorites is the 1958 adaptation of South Pacific. So much so that he and I on our various travels have visited both Salzburg and Kauai, HI, taking in the filming locations. So whenever a place with which he is familiar is mentioned, he always interjects subtly under his breath “Where I went one day.” (Case in point: he once listened to the Ricky Nelson classic “Travelin’ Man” realizing he’d been to every single place listed in the song). My brothers will attest, if we had a $1 for every time he said “Where I went one day, ” we’d be considerably well off… Anyway I digress…

Back in August, the subject was brought up again after my father came home from a golf trip and mentioned that his friend had talked about wanting to see it, but not being able to get tickets until March. Then it became something he wanted to do, so I set to work getting tickets. Anyone who has tried to purchase tickets for this revival knows that it is one of the hottest tickets in town (huzzah for LCT!) and you have to really scope out the tickets. For my parents, where we sat wasn’t an issue, as long as we got there.

For years as a child, I had always asked for tickets to see shows in NY and everytime I was given a gentle dismissal, as if to say “I know, but that’s not going to happen.” So I gave up on my family as theatre-going companions. They understood that this was something I enjoyed doing, but aside from obligatory viewings of myself in educational theatre expositions in high school and college, they were mostly homebodies. So my excitement levels were already amped up for this, since they would be on my turf, following my lead and this was really also a testing area to see if this is something they will do on a continual basis.

This was all planned out in August. Then October came around and my family was knocked for a considerable loop. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had an idea of this back before South Pacific was even a discussion, but wasn’t 100% certain until his actual diagnosis. Barring my father’s need for privacy, he didn’t tell anyone that he was having a biopsy. But when it became clear that surgery was the option, he had to let us know. My first suspicions came when I heard two red flag alerts: “I don’t want radiation or seed implantation” and “I have tickets for South Pacific on the 4th, this won’t interfere with that, will it?”

Thankfully everything is fine. His diagnosis was made in stage I, meaning he was cancer free as of his surgery; however, I was a little concerned as his surgery was twelve days before the show! If anyone reading has ever met my father, they know he’s a hard-working, quiet, engaging person. He was in the Marines and worked as a paid firefighter for 36 years in Scarsdale, NY. He is also incredibly stubborn. He had surgery on a Thursday and was home from the hospital on Sunday. Monday was a comic sight as my mother was yelling at him to take it easy as he insisted on working around the house. However, given the minimally invasive nature of the procedure these days, recovery time is much less than it was even five years ago. (Everything is done with robotics; with pinpoint accuracy not even afforded the naked eye and hands).

Anyway, Tuesday rolled around and there were no worries. As I said in my post from that day, we did our civic duty and voted. Around 3:30 in the afternoon we got in the car and drove down to the city. My parents had never been to the Lincoln Center area, but we got there easy enough. In an amusing case of “small world,” a gentleman approached the ticket booth in the garage and nodded a hello to us. After a moment, he turned to my mother (who at 4’9″ and a rather jovial high decibel Scottish brogue is a rather memorable character) and told her “I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.” Lost she shrugged and we exchanged the usual pleasantries. As soon as she spoke, it clicked in for him. “If I’m not mistaken, you live around Peekskill, correct?” Well, we were clearly making a connection here. Turns out he was Jehovah’s Witness that had come to prostelyze his at our door several months prior. My mother, a devout Catholic, adamantly tells them immediately that she has no interest in converting but will never be rude enough to not answer the door and will usually engage the ladies and gentlemen in a brief conversation. Turns out my mother kept him around for the Cliff Notes version of the family history as he turned to me and asked “Is this the archaeologist?” (My brother). The amount of information he recalled from the conversation was either incredibly remarkable or incredibly creepy, possibly a little bit of both. My mother, with a cosi fan tutti shrug, just turned to us and said “I just can’t get away wherever I go.”

We emerged at Lincoln Center through the Met. They are undergoing some intense renovations at the moment, so it’s a little easy to get lost. We exited into the main plaza where they took in the beauty of that area (and were impressed with the set-up regardless of the all the paneling and detours). Dinner was at O’Neals, where I looked on with a smile as they couldn’t get over the grand treatment that was given them at the restaurant (they really treat the customers spectacularly there). We ate early as to avoid the rush and to give us ample time to relax and digest leading to the performance. Originally we were going to walk around a few of the blocks as they wanted to scope out the surrounding area, but poor weather prevailed. We instead headed over to the Vivian Beaumont and waited for the house to open.

A lot of this time I entertained questions from them about this particular house and about Broadway etiquette in general. They were fascinated by the presence of a bar and the concession stand, with both charming the hell out of the girl behind the counter. (My mother could make friends with the enemy during battle, she’s got that gift; my father can be one hell of an innocent charmer when he wants to be).

The show was resplendent; even more nuanced and affecting than the first time I saw it. Kelli O’Hara is giving one of the most dynamic, three dimensional performances in NY; she’s just continued to grow since opening night. It is easily one of the most naturalistic performances I have ever seen in a musical. William Michals was on for Paulo Szot, which led me to quip “Paulo who?” Michals, a little older and perhaps not as physically imposing as Szot, acts the role with sincerity and can sing the hell out of the score. Not only sing it, but act it as well. His was one of the most impressive understudy performances I’ve ever witnessed. Matt Morrison is back after a month hiatus and is sounding more legit than ever. Danny Burstein is still giving Luther Billis the Bert Lahr treatment. And Loretta Ables-Sayre is still as impressive as ever.

I have to admit I was a little on edge during the performance, not so much because of my enjoyment of it, which was incredible, but moreso because I was curious/nervous as to how my parents were reacting. I realized that I hadn’t been in an audience with my parents since my dad took us to a George Jones concert in the now-defunct Opryland for his birthday back in 1994, so I had basically nothing to go on in gauging their reactions. It’s very interesting though, that their body language could help pinpoint it for me. My father has the best poker face you’d ever see. When I saw him crack a smile during the first Billis-Bloody Mary exchange, I knew he was enjoying it. My mother, on the other hand, is very exuberant in her reactions; she practically fell out of her chair cheering on Loretta Ables-Sayre at the curtain call and couldn’t stop talking about how much she enjoyed her performance on the ride home.

It was amusing to be the one conducting their evening. They purchased the souvenir program and a magnet to bring home. He briefly considered a t-shirt until he heard the prices. (Frankly, I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t plop down the money for a glorified Hanes myself). While my mother talked on about what she enjoyed (which was basically the entire show; I heard nary a complaint the entire time), my father drove on with a very calm, peaceful and satisfied look on his face. Another tell-tale sign he was enjoying himself, he was cracking quiet jokes to me before, during and after the show. (It was not nearly as bad as it may sound, in fact both were ideal audience members – my mother even unwrapped all her lozenges beforehand after reading the notice in the playbill – but for what it’s worth, be wary if you sit next to him at Mass, it’ll be a struggle to maintain your composure).

Given their immense enjoyment of South Pacific, can I get them to see anything else? I’m not sure. My father is generally content to be a homebody – and venturing into NYC for an evening at the theatre isn’t something I can expect him to do on a regular basis. Perhaps if Julie Andrews might appear in something (ohhh, does he love her…) or if The Sound of Music were to come back in another revival, maybe he’d consider it. My mother would probably be up to more trips to the city to see things, as she has seen many of the classic musicals in their film adaptations. (I’m going to work on a friend of hers to go see Gypsy. She’s enjoyed the movie, but hasn’t experienced the real thing).

It’s interesting to open up your world to people for the first time. To see people enter a Broadway house for the first time, take in their surroundings and audience neighbors (The twosome hit it up nicely: Mom with the woman from Ohio on her left; Dad with the woman to his right), I have to say (and this seems a little weird, but oh well) I was incredibly proud to have witnessed this milestone. To have them see how transportative the Broadway experience can be, especially with one of the first-class productions in NYC, well who could ask for anything more?

And now when someone mentions Broadway to my father, he can now say “Where I went one day…”

LCT has a New Resident Director

Congratulations to Bartlett Sher on being named Resident Director of Lincoln Center Theatre! Sher, who won the Tony for his direction of the smash hit revival of South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, has become a staple of LCT in recent years starting with his superlative work on the breathtaking original production of The Light in the Piazza and the revival of Awake and Sing! (Not to mention his direction of the Met Opera’s Il Barbiere de Siviglia).

This position requires Sher to direct one production per year for LCT, while he also continues his duties as artistic director at the Intiman Theatre in Chicago.

Exciting News! – aka ‘It’s About Time!’

It’s taken years. Lots of interest on my part has gone unheeded. My mother has dismissed it because she would rather stay local, going anywhere too far from the home like that was too much for her. This from a woman who is already planning a trip to the Philippines to witness the birth of her first grandchild. My father was more indifferent, he really couldn’t care less about it unless it was directly related to one of his two favorite interests: The USMC and firefighting, two careers of which he is incredibly proud.

Well, folks, get out your snowsuits and wool caps because we be having a snow ball fight in the seventh depth tonight! Yes. My parents are going to see their very first Broadway show this fall, the acclaimed Lincoln Center Theatre revival of South Pacific. They’ve actually seen a couple of productions in NY, both off-off Broadway (which to your average John Smith would make them seem a bit theatre-savvy but they’re really not) but this will be the very first on the Main Stem.

For years, I asked to see shows for the usual birthday and Christmas presents. My mother would usually laugh it off, saying no way. And unlike the usual surprises you can get from a mother, mine was pretty much a woman of her word. She much preferred seeing community and high school productions saying she can have a good time anywhere, so long as it’s cheap. I think that was the moment I learned to arch my eyebrow.

Anyway, my overwhelming enthusiasm for this crystalline revival got my father interested. Now my father LOVES South Pacific, almost as much as he worships the grass Julie Andrews twirls on. He may not be a big musical theatre person, but those are two movie musicals he greatly appreciates (an extension goes out to all other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows in the process). Anyway, he was taken aback at the expense but for once the urge to see the show itself outweighed the expense (he was also encouraged yesterday by a golfing buddy who told him he got his tickets already for February). He asked me to look into it. And here we are.

Much to the excitement of the idle poor here, I am incredibly enthused to be going with them (don’t you love it when someone else offers to pay for your theatre?) It’s very exciting to be with a person seeing their first Broadway show. I have been a part of the privilege several times, most recently with my good friend Lauren when I got comps for The Lion King. I took her to see her second show Spring Awakening too. There is great joy in sharing the live theatre experience, an inexplicable intimacy of watching a person take in the grandeur and scope and aesthetic in a Broadway house. Here are my parents, my 67 year old mother and 68 year old father are going to venturing down to the Beaumont for an evening of joyous musical theatre. Who could ask for anything more? Wait, I can. I want them to start going more regularly.

Everyone always remembers their first 😉

Quote of the Day

Steven Suskin weighs in on the New Broadway Cast Recording of South Pacific, as well as the archival video of the original London production with Mary Martin:

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?

"Some Enchanted Evening"

I know there are you naysayers who didn’t particularly care for this production, better yet, for this musical entirely. I found this clip on BlueGobo tonight and had to share this swoon worthy coupling of 2008 Tony winner Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara, here singing the first “Some Enchanted Evening” reprise, which appears in the show proper between “I’m Gonna Wash That Man” and “A Wonderful Guy.” My only complaint is the pesky TV direction by those people at “The View.” One shot through the harp is good enough, thank you. Just let the camera focus on the performers.

Memorial Day at ‘South Pacific’

Frank Rich commented in an op-ed about the current revival of South Pacific and hits the nail on the head about the sort of impact this revival is having on audiences. Many of the feelings described are those I felt when watching this superlative production. I knew it was a hit, but I’m stunned at just how big a hit it is! Can you imagine? $1,000 in cash for a ticket? My word.

From the NY Times (in case you missed it):

Op-Ed Columnist
Memorial Day at ‘South Pacific’

NEW YORK is a ghost town on Memorial Day weekend. But two distinct groups are hanging tight: sailors delighting in the timeless shore-leave rituals of Fleet Week, and theatergoers clutching nearly impossible-to-get tickets for “South Pacific.”

Some of those sailors served in a war that has now lasted longer than American involvement in World War II but is largely out of sight and mind as civilians panic about gas prices at home. “South Pacific” has its sailors too: this 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical tells of those who served in what we now call “the good war.”

The Lincoln Center revival of this old chestnut is surely the most unexpected cultural sensation the city has experienced in a while. In 2008, when 80-plus percent of Americans believe their country is in a ditch, there wouldn’t seem to be a big market for a show whose heroine, the Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, is a self-described “cockeyed optimist” who sings of being “as corny as Kansas in August.”

Yet last week one man stood outside the theater with a stack of $100 bills offering $1,000 for a $120 ticket. Inside, audiences start to tear up as soon as they hear the overture, even before they meet the men and women stationed in the remote islands of the New Hebrides. Among those who’ve been enraptured by this “South Pacific” the most common refrain is, “I couldn’t stop myself — I was sobbing.”

This would include me, and I have been trying to figure out why ever since I first saw this production in March. It certainly wasn’t nostalgia. I was born two months before the show’s Broadway premiere in April 1949 and had never before seen “South Pacific” on stage. It was mainly a musty parental inheritance from my boomer childhood. My father had served in the Pacific theater for 26 months, and my mother replayed the hit show tunes incessantly on 78s as our new postwar family settled into the suburbs.

Like countless others, I did see Hollywood’s glossy 1958 film version. As the British World War II historian Max Hastings writes in “Retribution,” his unsparing new book about the war’s grisly endgame in the Pacific, “Many of us gained our first, wonderfully romantic notion of the war against Japan by watching the movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific.’ ” But the movie of “South Pacific,” a candy-colored idyll dominated by wide-screen tourist vistas, is not the show. Its lush extravagance evokes the 1950s boom more than war.

In the 1960s, after the movie had come and gone, Vietnam pushed “South Pacific” into a cultural black hole. No one wanted to see a musical about war unless it was “Hair.” Unlike its Rodgers and Hammerstein siblings “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” it never received a full Broadway revival.

Today everyone thinks they’ve seen the genuine “South Pacific” only because its songs reside in the collective American unconscious. “Some Enchanted Evening.” “Younger Than Springtime.” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” But few Americans born after V-J Day did see the real thing, which is one reason why audiences are ambushed by the revival. They expect corn, but in a year when war and race are at center stage in the national conversation, this relic turns out to have a great deal to say.

Though it contains a romance, “South Pacific” is not at all romantic about war. The troops are variously bored, randy, juvenile and conniving. They are not prone to jingoistic posturing. When American officers try to recruit Emile de Becque, a worldly French expatriate, in a dangerous reconnaissance operation, they tell him he must do so because “we’re against the Japs.” De Becque, who is the show’s hero, snaps at them: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” No one bothers to answer his question. The men have been given a job to do, and they do it.
“South Pacific” isn’t pro-war or antiwar. But it makes you think about the costs. When, after months of often slovenly idling, the troops ship out for the action they’ve been craving, the azure tropical sky darkens to a gunpowder gray. Their likely mission is to storm the beach at Tarawa, where in November 1943 more than 1,000 Americans and 4,600 Japanese would die in less than 76 hours in one of the war’s deadliest battles.

This is a more fatalistic World War II than some we’ve seen lately. When America was sleepwalking on the eve of 9/11, the good war was repositioned as an uplifting brand. Nostalgia kicked in. Perhaps we wanted to glom onto an earlier America’s noble mission because we, unlike “the greatest generation,” had none of our own. The real “South Pacific” returns us to the war as its contemporaries saw it, when the wounds were too raw to be healed by sentiment.
That reflects the show’s provenance. It was hot off the press: a nearly instantaneous adaptation of “Tales of the South Pacific,” the 1947 novel in which the previously unknown James A. Michener set down his own wartime experiences in the Pacific.

Many theatergoers who saw “South Pacific” in 1949 had sons and brothers who had not returned home. Just 10 days after it opened at the Majestic Theater on 44th Street, The New York Times carried a small story datelined Honolulu. A ship had arrived there bearing “the bodies of 120 American war dead,” the remains of men missing in action since 1943. “Thus ended the last general search for the men who fell in the South Pacific war,” the article said.
Watching “South Pacific” now, we’re forced to contemplate Iraq, which we’re otherwise pretty skilled at avoiding. Most of us don’t have family over there. Most of us long ago decided the war was a mistake and tuned out. Most of us have stopped listening to the president who ginned it up. This month, in case you missed it, he told an interviewer that he had made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up golf for the war’s duration because “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf.”

“South Pacific” reminds us that those whose memory we honor tomorrow — including those who served in Vietnam — are always at the mercy of the leaders who send them into battle. It increases our admiration for the selflessness of Americans fighting in Iraq. They, unlike their counterparts in World War II, do their duty despite answering to a commander in chief who has been both reckless and narcissistic. You can’t watch “South Pacific” without meditating on their sacrifices for this blunderer, whose wife last year claimed that “no one suffers more” over Iraq than she and her husband do.

The show’s racial conflicts are also startlingly alive. Nellie Forbush, far from her hometown of Little Rock, recoils from de Becque when she learns that he fathered two children by a Polynesian woman. In the original script, Nellie denigrates de Becque’s late wife as “colored.” (Michener gave Nellie a more incendiary word in his book.) “Colored” was cut in rehearsals then but has been restored now, and it lands like a brick in the theater. It’s not only upsetting in itself. It’s upsetting because Nellie isn’t some cracker stereotype — she’s lovable (especially as embodied by the actress Kelli O’Hara). But how can we love a racist? And how can she not love Emile’s young mixed-race children?

Michener would work out this story in his own life. In 1949, he moved to Hawaii, where he would eventually make a third, long-lived marriage with a Japanese-American who had been held in an internment camp during the war. “South Pacific” works through this American dilemma for the audience, too. Years before Little Rock’s 1957 racial explosion, Nellie moves beyond her prejudices, propelled by life and love and the circumstances of war. She charts a path that much of America, North and South, would haltingly begin to follow. (In the script, we also hear of racism in Philadelphia’s Main Line.) “South Pacific” opened as President Truman was implementing the desegregation of America’s armed forces — against the backdrop of Ku Klux Klan beatings of black veterans.

Then and now, the show concludes with the most classic of American tableaus: Emile, Nellie and the two kids sitting down to a family meal. It’s hard for us to imagine how this coda must have struck audiences in 1949, when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states (as it would be in 16 until 1967). But nearly 60 years later, this multiracial family portrait has another context. The audiences watching “South Pacific” in this intense election year are being asked daily to take stock of just how far along we are on Nellie’s path and how much further we still have to go.

And so as we watch that family gather at the end of “South Pacific,” both their future and their country’s destiny yet to be written, we weep for the same reason we often do when we experience a catharsis at the theater. We grieve deeply for our losses and our failings, even as we feel an undertow of cockeyed optimism about the possibilities of healing and redemption that may yet lie ahead.

Quote of the Day #2

Ms. Smith gets another mention today from her second page:

I DON’T want to get silly here but must confess that seeing the incredible “South Pacific” revival at Lincoln Center is akin to having a true spiritual experience. I was never a big Rodgers/Hammerstein fan, but this time I was felled with emotion and appreciation. Everything about this production is perfect, including Bartlett Sher’s direction and the sets of Michael Yeargan. The music is more stunning than ever.

When it became the only musical to win all four Tonys for acting back in 1949 . . . when it was nominated for nine Tonys and won all . . . when it went on to nab the Pulitzer in 1950 . . . when it ran for five years – I was indifferent. Not anymore. This is a masterpiece. It seems to mean much more now, and its evocation of World War II is deeper. The moral lessons of racism seem even more apt. I salute one and all but especially Kelli O’Hara as the navy nurse Nellie Forbush. I also loved the magnificent Paulo Szot as the French planter Emile de Beque; his character is written as being a bit tentative but not his singing.

You may have to wait to see this show because current audiences are mostly upscale, upper-middle-class, middle-aged enthusiasts who support Lincoln Center. But young people and even kids are coming. Get in line! Don’t miss it! The revival experience of a lifetime – and with that other revival experience of a lifetime, “Gypsy,” also playing right now – well, that’s really saying something. Both shows are incomparable. I would hate to have to choose between them.