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Melody Breyer-Grell

Melody Breyer-Grell

Posted: August 23, 2010 03:41 PM

Good news to report. Wednesday night's live airing of the fully orchestrated Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific was not intercepted by invading Techno-Martians, permitting humans to take a glimpse of their musical heritage.

For those who like to think of Americans as worthless, drooling, idiots who do nothing except take up space and consume crappy Chinese goods, we don't have to travel too far back in time to remember when we kicked some cultural ass.

Jazz and musical theater are ours and we have much to be proud of. Continuing in the melodic tradition of opera and operetta, the American musical was a way to bypass Avant-Garde nonsense and keep the music fresh and original in a theatrical setting. At this point who is to even say that classical musical theatre is not opera? Works like Sweeney Todd, when performed with a full orchestra, almost defy a separate classification.

My essay last week in the Huffington Post (Tis a Pity She's No Longer a Whore -- Broadway Armageddon -- I should have received a lot more hits with such a brilliant title) decried the ever encroaching use of synthesizers and the like replacing live musicians. A human (I think) commenter and proponent of such stated that the technology has advanced more in decades than the violin has in 400 years. Say what? To be able to even introduce that "fact" into the argument is, in itself, dehumanizing. I hope he meets up with Stradivarius in his next incarnation, perhaps as a string.

One of the most touching things about last night's presentation was the pairing of Mary Rodgers and Alice Hammerstein (the geniuses' daughters) to be interviewed by Alan Alda. These women, who witnessed some of the most innovative and important work being produced in America were both some pretty tough old gals (they admitted they were very reserved ladies), yet they said how they teared up when -- while at the first orchestra rehearsal -- they heard the first notes of the overture of South Pacific as it was written over 60 years ago! Memories of their fathers visited them, and they noted how pleased the patriarchs would have been to witness the occasion.

Mary went on to say that "Nobody, Nobody" (the patrons) gets that anymore -- without going into details regarding abbreviated orchestras now being used. I wonder how Bernstein would have felt if he heard his strings were being cut in half for West Side Story. The man had temperament -- I would not have wanted to be in THAT room.

Alan Alda admitted to weeping, but we know he is a softie and love him for it. Not for nothing, he comes by his love of the musical honestly -- his father, Robert Alda, created the role of Sky Masterson in the equally classic Guys & Dolls. Alda knows of what he weeps for.

South Pacific, based on Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of stories by James Michener, is a multifaceted piece. The plot is the thing in this play, although it is loaded with the requisite number of hit tunes. As it is set on some lovely, fantastical appearing islands -- I was unnerved when I read that they eventually morphed into the (French) war in Vietnam, of all things. The complex relationship between the French and the natives is not touched upon politically, but personally -- as at the time the "Japs" (I can't believe they let that stay in the script in these "sensitive times") were the enemy to all.

The drama centers on the brief but intense coupling of a lovely Tonkinese girl, (Liat) with a young American Marine (Lt. Joe Cable ) paralleling the more leisurely romance between a French expatriate, Emile De Becque, and Ensign Nellie Forbush, a saucy US nurse.

Originally skittish, in a matter of weeks Nellie gains confidence regarding her ability to bridge the age difference -- he an ancient 42 (the audience burst out laughing realizing how young 40 is now) and Nellie is in her mid 20's. She had also worried about her lack of intellect as opposed to his book learning. Still accepting, even after she learned that he killed a man, she is mortified later on when she finds he is the father of 2 mixed race angels.

In the simpler subplot Cable, though falling instantly in love with Liat, cannot cope with the implications of such a relationship, angrily sharing that fact in the still-stinging "You've Got to be Carefully Taught." This piece still is a stunner after all the time that has passed. R&H were worried about that one, but Joshua Logan (co-writer) insisted that it was the very arc of the work.

Filling out the piece with great characters such as Liat's mother -- the crafty peddler Bloody Mary, and all the soldiers you would find in McHale's Navy, you have a pastiche rich with comedy and tragedy that will never really be dated.

The warmly colored set, the performances (ranging from good to stunning) are not my concern here, and the flaws were scarce. The issue at hand is that this has been produced at all in these times of misguided austerity. Try to catch this if repeated or in the DVD that is sure to follow, as in some selected ways technology can be our friend. I have to admit I myself was crying at the end, from the beauty of it all.