When "South Pacific" opened on Broadway in 1949, it galvanized the public and the press. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical went on to run for five years, chalking up more than 1,900 performances.
And when "South Pacific" received its first full-fledged Broadway revival nearly six decades later, the reaction was virtually the same. The 2008 production played to packed houses for 1,000 performances.
Such success might not seem like a big deal in the age of "Phantom of the Opera," which is pushing 10,000 performances and may simply refuse to close — ever. But the "South Pacific" revival that reaches Baltimore this week as part of its second national tour represents one of the most impressive theatrical achievements in recent times. It became a textbook case of how to do a Broadway revival.
Bringing any musical back can be a risky business, as producers of such recent misses as "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Promises, Promises" and "Ragtime" can attest.
"It really falls on the shoulders of the creative team to answer the questions: Why this story, why now?" said Sarna Lapine, director of the current "South Pacific" tour. "You have to find out what it is about the story that can connect to an audience today. That applies just as much to Shakespeare or Chekhov, not just musicals. You always have to be asking those questions."
There have been several admirable examples of those questions being asked and answered in the right way on Broadway over the past decade or so, from the 1999 "Annie Get Your Gun" with Bernadette Peters to the current production of "Follies" that originated a few months ago at the Kennedy Center — also starring Peters.
In 2009, "Hair" made a surprising, resounding comeback. And last year, so did of "La Cage aux Folles." The national tour of that production reaches Baltimore next month. The "La Cage" revival, which originated in London and was directed by Terry Johnson, cut away the extravagant trappings of the 1983 original to expose more of the truths behind the glitter.
Getting to the truth was a prime motivation behind the return to "South Pacific."
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by James Michener, the musical is set on a tropic isle and centers on a romance between a Navy nurse and a French plantation owner who has fathered children with an islander. A parallel relationship between a Navy airman and a young native woman adds texture to the wartime plot. The complication in both love affairs is racism.
"South Pacific" arrived on Broadway only four years after V-J Day. As Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, has observed: "Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, it is the most connected to its time. How do you get an audience back to that post-World War II era?"
The team behind the revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, found a way.
"We respected the show's history, and we respected what it had to say," said Joe Langworth, casting director and associate choreographer for the 2008 production at the Lincoln Center Theater; he did the musical staging for the current tour.
"Our approach was to honor the book as much as the music, and to have all the elements work in a very symbiotic way," Langworth said.
Lapine, who assisted with the Lincoln Center staging, immersed herself into the world that U.S. servicemen encountered in the Pacific. In addition to her research in the Navy's archives and elsewhere, she talked to veterans of recent and current wars.
"It quickly became clear that this story was of the moment," Lapine said of "South Pacific" "We were getting the show ready for Broadway just as America was going through great changes, with an African-American presidential candidate running for office."
In one of the most memorable passages from the "South Pacific" score, the airman, Lt. Joe Cable, sings of how "you've got to be taught to hate and fear … It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear … You've got to be taught to be afraid of … people whose skin is a different shade."
In the end, "South Pacific" imparts the idea that it is possible to escape from such training and possible for people from various backgrounds to get along. The message wasn't universally embraced when the show premiered.
"We are not in an entirely different place today in that regard," Lapine said. "Now we have the Blue State/Red State divide and the same questions about whether we can come together."
A particularly striking element in this "South Pacific" revival has to do with the naval personnel, the ones who sing and dance about how "There's Nothin' Like a Dame."
"We keep the African-American sailors separated from the Caucasian sailors," Langworth said, "which is how it was when the military was still segregated. In our day, going into rehearsal and informing the cast that this is the way we are doing it, that's not an easy thing to do. But we wanted to treat the piece with honesty, in regard to what was going on at the time."
It is worth remembering that when "South Pacific" first went on national tour in the 1950s, the show was denounced from the floor of the Georgia legislature because it promoted intermarriage and "half-breeds."
"I'm happy to say that our country has taken big steps, but we still have a way to go," Langworth said. "But anyone who feels slightly out of the norm can walk away after seeing this show with a stronger sense of themselves."
Audiences can also walk away humming some terrific songs. For all the seriousness in the plot, this is still, after all, a musical from a golden age of American musicals.
The score was given considerable care and attention in the 2008 revival, in which the Lincoln Center Theater played a major role by itself. In that venue, the thrust stage opened during the overture to reveal a 30-piece orchestra — huge by contemporary Broadway standards — and the audience invariably burst into applause at the sight.
The first national tour saw a reduction of players; the second involves further cutbacks.
"We're doing everything in our power to keep the orchestra as close to the first national tour as we could get," Lapine said. "But it is much smaller. We have been working with ways to enhance the sound, and there is some dependency on technology to do that. It's being used not to replace an orchestra, but to support it."
The choreography, another well-conceived element in the revival, has been retained for the tour.
"We let the actors inform the movement," Langworth said. "We didn't want the movement to disrupt the flow of the story. We didn't want people to say, 'Why are those sailors dancing now?' The transitions [from dialogue to dance] are very natural. We're trying to maintain the sense of reality. When we were auditioning, we were not necessarily looking for dancers, but for good performers who could move well."
Michael Yeargan's exquisitely evocative set design for the 2008 revival, remarkably free of technical gadgetry, has been pared down for this second tour. "But it's really not much smaller at all," Langworth said. "The integrity is intact."
As for the performers, Langworth also has praise.
"For this tour, we auditioned over 1,000 people during the first week of casting," he said. "We were fortunate to really have a good look at the talent that was out there."
How much more life remains in marketing this "South Pacific" revival remains to be seen, but a second national tour says a lot about the product's legs. It certainly justifies the faith put in it at the start by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which had closely guarded the rights to the musical for years until being inspired by Bartlett Sher's vision.
Not that success was guaranteed in 2008.
"No one can predict these things," Lapine said. "On some level, there is always a surprise in this business."
More surprises, good or bad, are likely during the 2011-12 Broadway season, which includes a Sher-led revival of "Funny Girl." The revival list also includes "Godspell," "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (with a retooled book), and "Porgy and Bess" (Stephen Sondheim publicly castigated this one sight unseen after reading about liberties being taken with the original).
"You can never judge someone in the process of choosing the best way to tell a story," Lapine said. "You have to still be able to take risks as artists. Who knows what the best way is? The flaw [of some revivals] is not reaching far enough out to make a connection with today."
If you go
"South Pacific" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through Oct. 9 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25.25 to $90.25 (plus applicable service fees). Call 410-547-7328 or go to tickematser.com