Aspen Music Fest and Theatre Aspen host one-night ‘South Pacific’ at the Benedict Music Tent
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘South Pacific: In Concert,’ presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School & Theatre Aspen
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Monday, July 22, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $50-$500
Tickets: Aspen Music Festival box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
“Rodgers and Hammerstein understood the human condition. They knew how to reach directly to the heart.”
So says Andy Einhorn, the conductor who will be leading an orchestra and chorus Monday in a one-night-only concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s much-loved “South Pacific,” starring Metropolitan Opera star Nathan Gunn and Broadway leading lady Christy Altomare.
A celebrated musical theater conductor, Einhorn conducted the Broadway production of “Carousel,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein specialist and earlier this month was on the podium for the Aspen Opera Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”
“South Pacific” is a particular favorite for Einhorn.
“It is simple without being simplistic,” he said. “Rodgers is the great melodist of the musical and when the words and music are married together (like this) it is unparalleled”.
This will be the first collaboration between the Aspen Music Festival and Theatre Aspen.
The experienced Lonny Price will direct the concert performance, ensuring that the important social and political elements of “South Pacific” are not neglected.
“South Pacific” has some of the most beautiful songs in the musicals canon. In addition to “Some Enchanted Evening,” there’s “Younger Than Springtime,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” and some laugh-out-loud comedy songs such as “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Cockeyed Optimist.”
But “South Pacific” is much more than a cheery musical comedy set on an idyllic island. It is an ambitious work about racism, politics, and fear of the “other” disguised as a cheery musical comedy. Only Oscar Hammerstein had the courage in 1947 to write “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” an excoriating examination of racial prejudice at a time when prejudice was considered normal. Only Rodgers and Hammerstein would have made a foreigner with mixed race children their hero. Only Rodgers and Hammerstein at that time would have had the stature to make their secondary plot about a young American war hero in love with a woman of color. “South Pacific” was revolutionary.
In 1949, Mary Martin was the undisputed queen of Broadway. She had starred in every important stage musical since the war and there was no question who would lead the cast in “South Pacific,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s latest. She would play Nellie Forbush, an Army nurse who falls in love with a sophisticated Frenchman while stationed on a Pacific island during the war. Richard Rodgers played her the songs he and Oscar had written for her and she loved them. Who wouldn’t love “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Dites-Moi,” and the other gorgeous songs in the show?
She was excited and kept asking who was to play the handsome French planter, Emile de Beque. She was horrified when told that the famous operatic baritone, Ezio Pinza, was to play opposite her. Pinza barely spoke any English and had never sung anything but grand opera. Mary Martin was a show singer, a musical comedy performer who couldn’t read music. She was terrified that Pinza’s singing would show up her shortcomings and, while she couldn’t actually refuse to perform with him, she flatly refused to sing with him. Rodgers and Hammerstein had to write romantic songs for the lovers without any duets. This is why even “Some Enchanted Evening,” one of the most romantic love songs ever written for the theater, has only one line, at the very end, which the lovers sing together.
It was also a great success. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza never got on very well off stage, but on it they were a magical couple. The show ran for 1,929 performances, and won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Score.
Andrew Travers contributed to this story
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.