When South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949, it was considered something of a departure from standard musical theater fare because it cast an opera singer, bass Ezio Pinza, as French plantation owner Emile de Becque to star opposite Mary Martin's cockeyed optimist from Arkansas, nurse Nellie Forbush.
South Pacific went on to become one of the most durable shows by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, its near-perfect score packed with popular songs such as Bali Ha'i, Younger Than Springtime and There Is Nothin' Like a Dame. There have been many recordings of the musical with star pairings ranging from Mitzi Gaynor and Giorgio Tozzi (dubbing for Rossano Brazzi) in the movie to Brian Stokes Mitchell and Reba McEntire in a PBS concert version. Yet it took more than 50 years for there to be a Broadway revival, and then it swept the 2008 Tony Awards, winning seven, and is now on national tour.
Every other Rodgers and Hammerstein hit had been revived on Broadway. Why did it take so long for South Pacific?
"It was very particular to its time,'' says director Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony for his work on the show. "And because it was so particular to that time, they never quite had the right spirit to do it.'' The tour comes to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa this week.
Partly, the problem was the story, based on a bestseller about World War II by James Michener, Tales of the South Pacific. The musical was notable for its frank treatment of race, including a famous song against prejudice, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught, but the 1958 movie and other versions tend to stereotype characters like Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese merchant who sells souvenirs, including shrunken heads.
"There's a naivete to the movie that we wanted to avoid,'' Sher says. "We know so much more now about that period and how people really were in terms of our experience of other cultures. Everyone thinks (Polynesians) are all the same, but that region is incredibly diverse ethnically. The people who would have worked on Emile's plantation would have been really, really black, meaning aboriginal, vs. Bloody Mary, who is Tonkinese, meaning literally from Vietnam.''
The musical takes place at a time when the U.S. military was segregated. "I cast African-Americans as Seabees and they're largely kept separate onstage,'' Sher says. "It's a world in which racism is part of the world, not that there are just racists. Everybody's a part of the same racist way of looking at the world.''
Nellie has to overcome her prejudice to have a relationship with Emile, who had two mixed-race children with his late wife, a Polynesian. "Nellie going through this huge transformation is quite an extraordinary thing,'' Sher says. "She basically changes the way she thinks of what a family should be, and it includes his children. It was a large thing for an American in the 1940s.''
Carmen Cusack is Nellie, the role that Kelli O'Hara played on Broadway. "I find Carmen's singing to be the most like Mary Martin of anybody we've worked with,'' Sher says. "She's got a great sense of style, a real light touch, great wit. She has the ability to phrase in such a way that is very gentle but it sounds like period styling of the language. Almost in the way the vowels are shaped.''
Another challenge with reviving South Pacific was the casting of Emile, because Sher wanted an opera singer — a bass or baritone — to bring weight to booming ballads like Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine. "You really want that bigger sound,'' he says. "You want a sound that is different from the other singers.''
Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot won a Tony for his performance of Emile on Broadway. However, opera singers who can commit to the long period of time required for a tour are hard to come by, so three different bass-baritones — Rod Gilfry, David Pittsinger and Jason Howard — are switching off on the road. Howard will sing the role this week.
Sher, 51, is artistic director of the Intiman Playhouse in Seattle, and South Pacific is the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical he has directed. "I've done a heck of a lot more Shakespeare than I've done R&H,'' he says.
Nevertheless, he had the support of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to revive South Pacific because he directed the successful Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza, which has a score by Rodgers' grandson, Adam Guettel.
Sher also brought opera experience to the musical, having directed at the Metropolitan Opera, including Tales of Hoffman this season. He finds directing opera and theater productions to be quite different. While a musical will rehearse for weeks, an opera usually goes up with little time for rehearsal.
"The thing about opera is that you have a different kind of ethic,'' Sher says. "You sort of throw it together. It's a kind of athletic event. They get just enough information and then go out there and sing their heads off. Musicals take a completely different kind of singing. I mean, the basic skills are the same. They have to be great actors and they have to be great technically at what they do, but the mentality is different in terms of preparation. Opera singers have to learn to talk without music underneath them.''
The acting demands are high in South Pacific. Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, it has the most dialogue and the least music, according to R&H expert Ethan Mordden. The musical, with its book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The show also has relatively little dance for a musical.
On Broadway, the production features a 30-piece orchestra playing the sumptuous arrangements of Robert Russell Bennett. The tour orchestra is just a bit smaller, with 26 players.
Last year, Sher made some history as the first white director to stage an August Wilson play on Broadway, Joe Turner's Come and Gone. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, attended the play on one of their "date nights.''
"I don't know how a president goes anywhere,'' Sher says of the Saturday night in May when Times Square was on high alert for the presidential visit. "That kind of energy and excitement you get once in a lifetime. It was a great evening in my life.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.