IU Opera takes on classic Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’

By Peter Jacobi


“Once launched, ‘South Pacific’ immediately joined that rare company of such musicals as ‘Oklahoma!,’ ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ which are not only successful stage productions but major social, theatrical, historical, cultural and musical events.” So wrote Richard Rodgers in his autobiography, “Musical Stages.”

“We even made it into something of a philanthropic occasion,” he continued, “by setting aside preferred locations at every performance for people who made sizable contributions to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund.”

“Musical Stages” includes a fascinating narrative of how “South Pacific” came to be such a successful theatrical extension of James Mitchener’s collection of short stories, “Tales of the South Pacific;” how it came to have two intertwining and very different love stories; how it lured Ezio Pinza, the great operatic basso, into the cast as the middle-aged planter Emile de Becque, and how the Broadway star Mary Martin was wooed to become his love interest, Nellie Forbush.

“She was apprehensive,” Rodgers recalled. “She’d played opposite musical comedy juveniles and leading men but, my gosh, this was Don Giovanni himself? How could we possibly expect her to sing on the same stage as Ezio Pinza? Because there was some logic in what she said, I assured her that we’d write the score without a single duet for her. Mary promised to think it over.

Some months later, she sat down to listen to five songs Rodgers and his professional partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, had written. Martin promised a call the next morning with a yes or no answer. “That evening at dinner the telephone rang” noted Rodgers. “It was Mary. She said that she couldn’t wait until the morning for fear that we might change our minds and give the part to someone else overnight.”

One suspects there were no such dramatic hesitancies among Indiana University voice students who auditioned and earned a part in the Opera Theater production set to open at the Musical Arts Center Friday evening.

“Everyone seems to be enjoying the experience,” says Vincent Liotta, the revival’s stage director. “They’re all much involved. The show has so much heart. One cannot help but be excited to do it. Rehearsals have been going quite well.”

To that, Constantine Kitsopoulos, the production’s music director and conductor, adds: “We’re all having a great time. The kids are doing beautifully, those on stage and those in the pit, the University Orchestra. Also, what a difference it makes to have extra strings to add to the sound, far more strings than we’d have on Broadway. Just listen when we play the overture.”

“It’s the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals,” insists Liotta. “They all have great music, but ‘South Pacific’ is more profound, dealing with serious issues and universal messages about war and racism, yet all within the framework of a musical.” Mitchener’s stories won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

“The tunes are unforgettable,” says conductor Kitsopoulos, “and Hammerstein’s lyrics are natural, not made up, as they seem in many musicals. He and Rodgers had an organic way into and out of the music. The dialog gives way to music smoothly. It becomes obvious that when things get so emotional, the script has to shift into music.


The performers will accomplish their acting and singing on a set designed by William Forrester and wearing costumes by Linda Pisano. Forrester explains that the set must facilitate “lots of different locations. The singers need to get from here to there. What we’ve done is to create scenery that can be moved by cast members, thereby minimizing halts in the performance. What you’ll see is a Pacific island, basically palm trees and the ocean, nothing to get in the way of the story and the music. The music and the content are why we do this musical. Vince and I had really long discussions on what ‘South Pacific’ is about. It’s not just a happy musical. It is wartime, and there are prejudices that come into play. There’s tension among people brought together by war. They face the task of accepting others who have different cultural backgrounds.”

Costumer Pisano says she did extensive visual research. “Even though this is a musical comedy, it’s one about war and fighting for a cause. The costumes needed to be correct and natural and, in a subtle way, individual, with identifying nuances. I had a great time going through countless photographs. Some I had at home. My father was stationed on a ship in the South Pacific. I even have one photo of my father on shore leave in his white uniform on the day he met my mother. All this strengthened my investment in this project. The candid photographs, so many with their smiling faces, were a lesson in history and sacrifice.”

“South Pacific” followed “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” two other Rodgers and Hammerstein triumphs. Its initial Broadway run started in 1949 and lasted five years, just short of 2,000 performances. Other productions and touring companies came along to spread the pleasures to waiting audiences in many cities, including those overseas. The music helped shape a universal appeal: “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “Happy Talk,” “Carefully Taught,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Younger than Springtime” and “Bali Ha’i.”

I asked each of the above what he or she would like us in the theater to leave with at final curtain fall. Here’s what they said.

Linda Pisano: “I hope the audience will have enjoyed the show and come to understand the important issues of a not-so-distant history.”

William Forrester: “I want them to remember or, if younger, to learn what it was like in the war and how we must overcome our prejudices”

Vincent Liotta: “I hope you’ll take seriously what Hammerstein wanted to tell us, that it’s time to grow up and take to heart what he and Rodgers and Mitchener pointed out 60 years ago about acceptance of those different from you. I want you also to have enjoyed the performance.”

Constantine Kitsopoulos: “I would hope folks walk out of the theater thinking about prejudice and, if necessary, start personal struggles to overcome such feelings. I’d like them also to remember what these Jacobs School students have accomplished as performers. They’ve done a great job.”

Come and see if “South Pacific” affects you.

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