The score for South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, is one of the richest, biggest and most romantic Broadway has ever seen. The show opened in 1949, set records and won just about every award there was. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza starred as Nellie Forbush, a young nurse from Little Rock, and Emile de Becque, an older French planter. In its essence, South Pacific is the story of two romances. In one, between Nellie and de Becque, Nellie must face the consequences of her prejudices. She does, and overcomes them. In the other, between Lt. Joe Cable and Liat, Cable does not.
This concert version was staged without sets or costumes, but with a full orchestra and chorus. Reba McEntire plays Nellie, Brian Stokes Mitchell plays de Becque and Jason Danieley plays Cable. Lillias White is Bloody Mary, Liat's mother, and Alec Baldwin is Luther Billis. The entire cast is excellent, but this one-time performance would not have worked as well as it does without McEntire and Mitchell. They bring a natural command to their parts, they are believable as two people falling in love in the middle of a war. Most importantly, they sing superbly and in character.
South Pacific would not be the classic it is without the extraordinary Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Rodgers and Hammerstein were two hugely gifted pros at the top of their game when they wrote South Pacific. The score not only was carefully constructed to advance the story and, deliberately, to aim for hits, but to dig deeply into serious feelings about mature love, racial prejudice, uncertainty and plain joy. Consider a few examples:
--The score was written for Ezio Pinza, a basso profundo opera singer, and Mary Martin, a Broadway light coloratura. Martin insisted she not sing any duets with Pinza because she knew he could overpower her. The solution...a love story without joint duets. Instead, we have Twin Soliloquies in which each singer separately examines internally his and her new feelings. This is a clever and original solution to a professional problem.
--From Dites-moi to Some Enchanted Evening, in only four songs at the start of the show, Rodgers and Hammerstein are able to establish the characters of these two people, Forbush and de Becque, their backgrounds and their nature, and to establish bonds between each of them and us.
--Rodgers and Hammerstein keep us interested in the overall story by using songs to tell us things, but songs that have intrinsic charm and appeal. They deliberately juxtapose styles. Bloody Mary, for instance, is a bawdy song sung by the Navy guys, but it is followed almost immediately by Bali Ha'i, a dreamy song of longing.
--The score is fashioned for the strengths of the two leads. Nellie's songs tend to be upbeat explorations of her honest personality. De Becque's songs tend to be deeper and more serious. His were written specifically with Pinza's strengths and limitations in mind. They are written for a deep sound. This Nearly Was Mine, in fact, is almost an art song. Notice how so many of de Becque's sung lines end with the vowel "o." This gave Pinza the best sound to hit with his big voice, wide open and easy to sustain. Mitchell with his strong baritone makes skilled use of it.
--Rodgers invariably wrote the music after Hammerstein wrote the lyrics. Many would consider this limiting to a composer, and very few composers do it this way. With Rodgers, his talent was so great it didn't seem to make any difference. In South Pacific, his range moves from raucous songs for the sailors to one of the most delicate of love songs, Younger Than Springtime; from songs of optimism, A Cockeyed Optimist and A Wonderful Guy, to a song of great despair, This Nearly Was Mine. And Rodgers technique was extraordinary. Listen to what he does with Some Enchanted Evening, a big fat romantic song if there ever was one. Rodgers writes a flat-out romantic musical line with:
Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again.
But Rodgers, out of the blue, flats the last note on the last "again." I can't explain why it works, but it gives the song an unusual power of longing and expectation. Every now and then he'd employ this device and it works every time.
--The score features You've Got To Be Carefully Taught, a song that places racial prejudice squarely in the bulls-eye. It wasn't unusual for politicians in the South to insist this song be cut before they'd approve of the touring show coming to town. Rodgers and Hammerstein routinely refused all such requests.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were consummate artists who knew exactly what they were doing. With this concert version, South Pacific receives one of the best presentations I've seen. The emphasis is on the score, with dialogue used to keep the story-line clear. Staging is cleverly handled, with the singers sitting in chairs in front of the orchestra and the chorus in the rear. Stage director Walter Bobbie keeps the movements fluid and interesting, especially when he moves the chorus up front.
The DVD presentation is excellent. Although it's a filmed record of a stage presentation, video director Steve Ruggi uses the cameras and editing to keep things moving. It's one of the best editing jobs for a staged show that I've come across. There are no extras.