Thursday, November 5, 2009

First in a series: What's on Your iPod?

This is the first of an ongoing and intermittent series of musings on the theater-related music, Podcasts, and video files I have downloaded onto my iPod, and why they were significant enough to me to want to have them as companions during my long daily commute.

“South Pacific”
was the soundtrack of my young adolescence. It was the very first album I purchased after receiving my first stereo record player as a Bar Mitzvah gift, and the lush, romantic musical score was etched into by brain through infinitely repeated playings.

I never saw the legendary original production, starring the incomparable Mary Martin and opera bass-baritone Ezio Pinza; I was two years old when it debuted on Broadway. I probably saw a summer stock production at some point, and the so-so film version from the late 1950s, with the charming (but not incomparable) Mitzi Gaynor and matinee idol Rossano Brazzi, whose singing was dubbed by another opera star, Giorgio Tozzi.

Over time, that much beloved original cast recording gradually became like wallpaper—there, but nearly invisible in its familiarity. Then, at some point, it was no longer even there, abandoned and discarded during a move.

“South Pacific” lingered as a distant memory for many years, popping briefly into consciousness with the Reba McEntire-Brian Stokes Mitchell pairing for a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2005. Granted, I did not see it in person and thus missed out on the magic that only a live performance can bring, but I found that watching it on PBS left me cold. Reba McEntire, whom I would have thought of as a good match for the role of Nellie Forbush, seemed all wrong for the part; when she sang the self-deprecating words “I’m a little hick” in “Twin Soliloquies,” you believed her, though Nellie is no hick. And, while Brian Stokes Mitchell possesses a glorious baritone, his talent is that of a powerful concert performer, and not, sadly, a powerful actor. The chemistry between Nellie and Emile was nil.

So, when I heard there was to be the first full-scale production of “South Pacific” since the original one ended its run in 1954, I was less than impressed and had no particular interest in seeing the show—especially not at full price. Maybe I would pick up a ticket if it were available at the TKTs discount booth.

Ha! What did I know!

“South Pacific” opened to rave reviews for director Bartlett Sher, for the performance of the score by a full theater orchestra, and for its stars, Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, yet another pairing between a musical theater performer and opera singer. OK. So, now my interest was piqued.

After waiting months for excellent seats (listen, if I’m shelling out the big bucks, then I want a great seat!), I got to see for myself. And, yes, Ben Brantley of The New York Times, it was indeed “rapturous.” In all my life, I have never seen a more perfect production of a musical. It was as if “South Pacific” was some pristine undiscovered Rodgers and Hammerstein musical treasure that had been hidden in a secret hermetically-sealed vault for decades until Bartlett Sher unearthed it. Never has there been such a marriage between music and lyrics, such an emotional connection between the score and the characters and situations it embodies, and such “hummable tunes.” And never have I wanted to find a way to bottle the entire production, keep it on my person, and take it out from time to time in order to be able to recall the experience.

And that, my friends, is why you will find “South Pacific” on my iPod.

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