Saturday, April 5, 2008

South Pacific and the "First" Broadway Revival?

In the space of one week, revivals of two of Broadway's most classic shows have opened on The Street and both have been greeted with rave reviews. 1959's Gypsy and 1949's South Pacific now join 1984's Sunday In the Park With George as the latest critically acclaimed musical revivals on Broadway this season.

Several of the South Pacific reviews and pre-opening articles repeated the production's claim to being the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway and effectively the first Broadway production since the original closed over fifty years ago. This claim has been used to support an assertion that the show has somehow been lost until now. It also invites the comparison between this "first" Broadway revival with Gypsy which is now in its fourth revival, and its second in only five years. These two classic shows arriving on Broadway at once are in competition with each other, so highlighting the novelty of a new Broadway South Pacific versus the continually revived Gypsy, seems a reasonable PR tactic.* However, South Pacific has always been the more popular work and is arguably still much more familiar on a global scale than Gypsy, despite the latter's five Broadway productions.

In a recent article for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood pondered the differences between the two shows, and surmised that Gypsy's constant reappearance on Broadway is evidence of its more lasting popularity, gained through a forward-looking edge which mirrored a more troubled and uncertain national identity while South Pacific “can stand as a symbol of a time when all could agree on the fundamental virtues that the country strove to represent to the world: a can-do spirit, a belief in self-improvement, the courage to fight for the collective good." According to Isherwood, this attitude has dated South Pacific which has resulted in its becoming "a largely unknown theatrical entity." Other critics and journalists have focused on the musical's racial politics as the main factor which has dated the material and made it difficult to revive in a post-Civil Rights world.

But has South Pacific ever been an unknown entity? Its original production was a huge hit, one of the biggest in its day. In fact, the original production of South Pacific played 1,925 performances which is more than all the performances of all five productions of Gypsy combined.** While Gypsy was completely shut out of the Tony Awards in 1960, South Pacific, in addition to winning the Pulitzer Price for Drama, won nine Tonys and still holds the record for being the only show in Broadway history to sweep all acting categories. In 1950, a national tour was launched that would stay on the road for five years, and in 1951, Mary Martin opened in the London production which played for two and a half years. In New York, it was seen several times in the 50s and 60s at City Center and at the very same Lincoln Center where it is now being presented. Though Merman did take Gypsy on a successful post-Broadway tour (which was followed by a second national company), she opted not to take the show to London and it was not seen there or in New York again until the Lansbury revival in the 70s. When Hollywood eventually produced its versions of both, the 1958 South Pacific became one of the most successful films of its year and the soundtrack album, like the Broadway cast album, was a hit and was one of the best-selling records of the decade. Gypsy's 1962 film adaptation, while not a complete failure, hardly repeated the South Pacific film's success, and Pauline Kael dubbed it, "extremely unpleasant."

In the 1980s, South Pacific was seen in several major productions including one at New York's City Opera, a Los Angeles production starring Richard Kiley and Meg Bussert, a touring production starring Robert Goulet, and a major West End revival starring Gemma Craven. By this time, however, South Pacific had begun to show its age, and in 1984, Anne Bogart, an avant-garde director, staged a revisionist production at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts the premise of which was that mental patients who had been emotionally scarred by conflicts such as those in Grenada and Beirut were acting out the show as a form of behavioral modification therapy. Bogart's production used the musical's original text to examine mid-century American ideals about war and race. (For more on the production, see Sally Banes, Subversive Expectations). The production was highly controversial, but raised the question of whether South Pacific had become out-dated in its original form; the question has continued to be asked in the following years.

Nevertheless, South Pacific has never gone away. Since the year 2000, the show has been seen in a Lincoln Center concert starring Karen Ziemba and George Hearn, in a major revival at London's National Theatre directed by Trevor Nunn, a television film adaptation starring Glenn Close (a ratings winner), a US national tour which starred first Michael Nouri and later Robert Goulet, and of course in 2005, the one-night-only Carnegie Hall concert version starring Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell was filmed for television and is now available on CD and DVD. McEntire and Mitchell repeated their roles at the Hollywood Bowl just last summer. The show is also currently on tour in a new production in the UK starring Helena Blackman, who was a runner up in the "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" casting contest for the current London Sound of Music revival.

In addition, South Pacific has continued to be a favorite for amateur productions and is seen in school, church and community productions and in professional regional productions on a constant basis. There have been over forty recordings of the score, many of which are currently available on CD and there are three versions of the show currently available on DVD: the original 1958 film (recently released on a special 2-disc edition), the 2001 television production, and the 2005 concert staging. So, despite its lack of a return to Broadway in the recent past, South Pacific has never been out of the public concsciousness.

It is worth noting that only two of the Rodgers and Hammerstein titles were seen on Broadway during the 1970s and 80s. The King and I was brought back as a return vehicle for Yul Brynner twice, and Oklahoma! was seen in a 1979 revival that played less than 300 performances.

Finally, in 1993, Nicholas Hytner staged an acclaimed cross-racial Carousel at the National Theatre in London which transferred to Broadway the following year, playing on the same stage as the current South Pacific. This was the "first Broadway revival" of Carousel in the same sense that this is the first South Pacific Broadway revival. The Hytner Carousel came at a time when musical revivals were gaining strength on Broadway. That year, the Tony Awards Committee split the Best Revival Tony into separate categories for musicals and plays to accommodate the many entries. Hytner's color-blind reimagining of Carousel inspired interest in the other Rodgers & Hammerstein shows and in the following eight years, revivals of most of the major R&H titles (and two minor ones) appeared with similar new approaches.

After Carousel, The King and I appeared in 1996, and the same season the team's only work created especially for the movies, State Fair, was brought to Broadway. The Sound of Music was successfully revived in 1998 (it introduced the current Gypsy's Louise, Laura Benanti, to Broadway), and four years after its London premiere, the Trevor Nunn Oklahoma! bowed at the Gershwin in 2002. The following season, Flower Drum Song was revived. However, this show, like South Pacific, had addressed issues of race in ways deemed unworkable in a contemporary setting. For the 2002 revival, given that the story concerned Chinese people and Chinese Americans, a Chinese American playwright, David Henry Hwang, was given the task of writing a completely new new book and story that would be more politically correct. The result was not all together successful.

With all the revived interest in Rodgers and Hammerstein on Broadway in the past fifteen years, South Pacific, one of the team's most successful titles, was the glaring omission, the one major title still lacking a post-Hytner rethinking. Perhaps the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, led by Ted Chapin, were stymied by the accusations that the show was dated but realized a major re-write like the one given to Flower Drum Song would not work, nor would an approach like Anne Bogart's be acceptable on Broadway. Chapin has stated in recent interviews that he and the R&H Organization had been approached over the years with various concepts and packages to bring the show back to Broadway, none of which had been found suitable. (See related Times and Daily News articles). Some of the productions discussed above were at one time or another rumored for Broadway, though none ever took hold. Perhaps the 2001 Nunn production could have transferred, but it was not the success in London Nunn's Oklahoma! had been, and that Oklahoma! was a disappointment on Broadway in 2002.

Perhaps also, it has taken the distance of time, decade by decade, for the work to move from seeming dated to historic. Though a few of the critics reviewing the current production did complain that the show is dated and unworkable for a contemporary audience, most seemed to regard the racial and social politics in the work as acceptably representative of the time period in which it is set and was written. Though only time will tell if audiences accept the work with the wide acceptance that has greeted previous productions, the love affair between audiences and South Pacific seems unlikely to end any time soon.

The current revival, originally slated as a limited engagement, announced that it would become an open run after the raves began to roll in. When it comes time for the Tony awards, South Pacific will be hard to beat in the Best Revival of a Musical category, and it will show strong competition in several of the other categories as well. Though Gypsy too gained rave notices, Gypsy has always been a tougher sell. Though both stories are deeply American, South Pacific is quintessentially Rodgers and Hammerstein in its life-affirming testament that racial prejudice can be overcome and cockeyed optimism can be rewarded even during war. Gypsy, not unlike Death of a Salesman, suggests that reaching for the American Dream can only lead to isolation and estrangement, even from one's family. Though Gypsy is frequently called the "greatest" of all American musicals, it easy to see why South Pacific has always been a more popular one.

*Highlighting the competition between the two productions, Michael Riedel reported some gossip in the New York Post last week that commercial producers of Gypsy feel that the not-for-profit revivals like South Pacific should not be allowed to compete for Tonys with commercial revivals.

** So far. Statistics quoted from


Anonymous said...


The film was from 1958, not 1956 (just a typo).

Broadway Derrick said...

Thanks! ... I got it right in the first mention, but not the second! Just updated.

Anonymous said...

please continue to write! I love reading your posts as they are so informative and thorough!!

Broadway Derrick said...


Louise said...

As many of theatre lovers I LOVE the musical South Pacific ! It is my favourite ever...I've seen it in New York and next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tickets via:
So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.