Saturday, February 13, 2010

South Pacific

We took in the Broadway revival of South Pacific last night. Very handsome production, though I wish I'd seen the original cast. I've never been a big fan of the musical but I have to blame that on the stiff movie version and the subsequent TV version because, like most of Rodgers & Hammerstein's work it's pretty solid from song to song to song. This is why modern musicals are so often not wonderful, as they usually have to rely on one or two killer songs/hooks to get them through two plus hours. You need at least four or five!

Mitzi Gaynor sings in outside the shower

If you're an overachiever like West Side Story, you don't take any chances and only allow superlative classics into your song score. Literally any of those numbers could carry entire lesser musicals through long rough patches.

I thought the recent TV version with Glenn Close was close to unwatchable. Not sure why I had that reaction, but I did. Maybe it's all the icky dated romantic stuff? I mean, I love "Carefully Taught", one of the most succinct and potent songs ever written about racism and prejudice. But then that beautiful message gets all bogged down in weirdly creepy 50s sexual politics. Like My Fair Lady, South Pacific ends with such a conservative 'a woman's place is in the home' worldview that it's hard to really get behind. And that's not the half of it.

The second tier romance in the movie/play is more troubling. The big romantic ballad "Younger Than Springtime isn't as quite as creepy as Gigi's "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" but it's just as emphatic about women being desirable only if they're young. [Have you ever heard Annie Lennox's retro skewering of this mentality? So fun]

Lt Cable has a thing for young Asians: film version (John Kerr),
current B'way (Andrew Samonsky), TV movie (Harry Connick Jr)
and original B'way cast (Matthew Morrison from
Glee. Yay!)

Even though the show is morally right-on about love being color blind, it's still asking you to swoon for two complicated and one ethically questionable romance. The lead romance involves a much older man who lies (or at least hides the truth) to a young woman he'd like as the mother of his two children. The secondary romance involves a man and younger woman who can't even communicate (but for hot sex)... and she's basically been pimped by her entrepreneurial mother! You're definitely supposed to think that Lt. Cable scored by getting a girl that's "younger than springtime". Creepy!

Have you seen any versions of South Pacific and do you find it easy to ignore the politically sexually questionable politics in old movies/classics? Do you wash those memes right out of your hair?


jbaker475 said...

I saw the revival back in early January, and while I liked it, it totally feels dated. For the most part, I don't find that the old fashioned mentality towards women/relationships bother me too much. It's always awkward at first, but I find it's not worth getting too worked up about ("Thank Heaven for Little Girls" however...uhhhhhhh). My weird thing about South Pacific, and I'm sure plenty would slap me for saying, is that I've never liked that "Some Enchanted Evening" is sung with an accent. It's such a beautiful song, but whenever the male lead sings it with his French (?) accent, it always sounds closer to a parody. *waits for the flames* Overall, though, it's a decent production, but it's just old fashioned in mentality, structure, etc... Sadly, it's better than most of the other current B'way shows like Rock of Ages, which can't even make it's stupidity enjoyable, and God of Carnage which is overrated to the nth degree. These are sad times for Broadway.

John said...

It's definitely not just you - the TV version with Glenn Close is absolutely atrocious, and is possibly the worst-cast musical ever. Close couldn't have played Nellie Forbush even when she was the right age for the character - who the hell thought she could do it in her fifties?

I like South Pacific as a show, primarily due to the stupendous score as you mentioned. I agree that its sexual and racial politics sometimes come across as really, really disturbing despite its attempts at liberalism. I do think that the current revival does a great deal in transcending the limitations of the source material, though. Nellie and Emile seem more like equals here (at least, Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot did; not sure about the current cast) partially because they cast a fairly young Emile; and Bloody Mary is actually portrayed by a Pacific Islander and is much less of a cartoon than, say, in the film. But the cracks still show.

I do wonder what "golden age" Broadway shows you do enjoy, though? Most of them are as problematic as South Pacific is, including My Fair Lady as you point out. The only one I can think of that's not overtly gender- or race-faily is Gypsy, and that's only because it owns up to its own screwed-upness!


John -- that's so true about Gypsy. But i love a lot of the old war horses of musical theater. it mostly depends on the score. I love Gypsy (love My Fair Lady despite the aforementioned problems), west side story... and others but my mind has gone blank.

Andrew K. said...

South Pacific has to be one of those "important" musicals that I just don't get. It has some numbers that I really like, but overall the score and the libretto do nothing for me...and I like Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Peter Chan said...

Being a fan of LCT productions and 'Light In The Piazza' as my favorite musical EVER, I jumped at the opening of 'South Pacific' a couple of seasons ago. Sure, it was lavish as Bart Sher can make it, but something didn't click with me.

The entire time, I was wishing and waiting for Kelli and Matt to share the stage alone and when they did... it was pure joy for me.

Also, LURVE a theatre-related post!

Jamie said...

I love musicals!!! I saw the original South Pacific the film and while i liked some of the music, i'm more of a Sound of Music or Singin' in the rain kind of girl. I thought the story line was kind of boring.

I used to hate Westside Story but now i can stand listening to a couple of songs.


Jamie, how is this possible?!? Who hates West Side Story?!

Timmie said...

I played Lt. Cable in a community theatre production a few years ago, and I must say, it was really difficult to play that romance. So hard to love someone who you've never even spoken to. It was probably one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced as an actor. I love love love every song in South Pacific, but the story and book scenes are tough to get through.
Glenn Close was WAY too old to play Nellie, and that is my main problem with that version. It was like watching Phyllis Diller playing little orphan Annie, or Martin Short as Danny just didn't fit!!!


Timmie -- exactly. i can't imagine. i guess you just have to play up the lust/soulmate thing.

but book versus score is so common with classics. Like Kiss Me Kate. I 've heard that the estate that controls it doesn't allow changes but the scores is absolute awesome but that book is so unwieldy. I can't imagine what someone really creative could do to it if they could tinker a lot. I've heard any tinkering with Annie gets you shut down too but many musicals SHOULD be tinkered with to allow for fresh takes.

Rebecca said...

Wow, I have a really different reason for finding the politics of this movie icky. I played in the pit orchestra of a local production, and what struck me was not that the older man 'hides' his secret from the woman, but that she's racist because she doesn't want to be a stepmother to mixed race children. Ick.

Rebecca said...

Although, 'This Nearly Was Mine' is a lovely song, probably my favorite of the show.

gabrieloak said...

I saw the show with the original cast and I have to say that O'Hara, Morrison shirtless and most importantly Paolo Szot really added up to a memorable theater experience. Szot's This Nearly Was Mine was incredible.

He's coming back to the show at the end of March and since I just got a discount offer from Lincoln Center I'll may return to the show again just to see him.

Jamie said...

I guess i hated West side story when i was younger because i didn't understand the story line of why the people couldn't get along.

Now i like the movie though.

Anonymous said...

Any person who claims to love music in any capacity should have to see WEST SIDE STORY. No if, ands, or buts about it. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, sounds like it. That score is a true original in every way.

Now that that plug is done, count me in the meh crowd with SOUTH PACIFIC. I think Nat hit it on the head, some wonderful songs, but not much else going for it for my taste. I think with a lot of the older musicals there's usually something else going on for them to make me overlook their most glaring flaws (which are usually story related; thank you racially/sexually F'd Up pre-Social, Feminist Revolution America). The choreography in KISS ME KATE and especially something like SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (now that's a story beyond F'd up) really go a long way to help those movies out. SOUTH PACIFIC, sadly, doesn't have much going on outside the music except super saturated Technicolor.


Jamie said...

Val- I like the music, i just didn't like the story-line.

gabrieloak said...

Though I love the score to West Side Story I don't particularly love the movie. Also I saw a Broadway revival of the show years ago that was awful. I have stayed away from the current Broadway revival because I've heard it wasn't that good. But I still love the original Broadway cast recording.

Steven said...

O Nat, I wish you had seen the original cast of this production. It was one of the most sublime evenings I've had at the theatre. Everything about that cast clicked so well for me. I was totally rooting for Kelli over Patti at the Tonys (I'm sorry, Patti just way overdid it for me... and was she even acting or just being Patti?) and I'm just in love with Paulo Szot. Every time that man was onstage was absolute bliss. There was not one person whose heart didn't skip a beat during "Some Enchanted Evening" and you can tell that there was almost a standing ovation after "This Nearly Was Mine." He was that good. Tony well deserved. And he's a sexy, gay Brazilian man... how can you go wrong? You can see why Nellie would fall in love with him because, well, just about anyone would!

And of course, Matthew Morrison was doing Navy-like workouts during the run to keep him in shape... for that shirtless scene... yeah...

My goodness, who thought South Pacific could make one so hot?

I believe South Pacific has the most beautiful orchestrations ever written/produced in any musical anywhere. So to hear a full pit, a proper orchestra, playing that score... absolutely thrilling for me.

Anyway, it remains one of the most enjoyable performances I've seen on Broadway. You should definitely revisit when Paulo comes back, as he does from time to time after he's finished with that silly opera stuff he does on the side. ;)



steven -- i'm sorry i missed him because the current Emile has little sex appeal. Nellie seemed a little more afraid of him than in love with him (at least for the first act... their chemistry got better in the second)