Theater archives

When Musicals Matured: Three Revivals Recall Another Age


South Pacific, Gypsy, and Juno: While the last was on view, briefly, you could sample three rich dollops of what might be called the American musical theater’s Age of Maturity—shows for the serious-minded, though not without a passing eye for frivolity. The more earnest fans of their seriousness often espouse a quasi-Darwinian theory of music-theater: the idea that the genre has been evolving toward the higher status of opera. In this Darwinized musicology, Hammerstein’s avowed disciple Sondheim ranks as the natural culmination; Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves are viewed as the glorious moment just before Sondheim, when the musical first stood upright, shed its prehensile tail, and walked with square-shouldered dignity toward the era of conceptual productions and unresolved dissonances.

The faint hint of condescension in this view of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals covers an inevitable disquiet, since it takes some squeezing for the team’s musicals to fit the theory. Both men had been old hands, as actively interested in pleasing the audience as in challenging it; both had been artistically “married” before, and had often taken with their previous partners the sort of risks that were not supposed to have been part of the musical theater before they came together in 1943 to write Oklahoma! Both were interested in storytelling that offered opportunities for the eye-catching spectacle and low comedy that pre-“serious” audiences had traditionally loved. Though the team strove for, and frequently captured, an “American” feeling, its roots lay noticeably in Viennese costume operetta; its rare fumbles (Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream) came from trying to write in the American here and now.

South Pacific (1949), the team’s fourth musical, stands as both an anomaly and a kind of quintessence, telling the story of two tension-fraught romances between Navy personnel and local residents on a Pacific island at the height of World War II. Though not exactly “here and now,” its time and place were breathily close to the era’s audiences, many of whom could have experienced them firsthand. The exotically beautiful setting contrasts with the rowdily American characters. The principal non-Americans are also non-natives: Bloody Mary, a “Tonkinese” (presumably Vietnamese), and Emile de Becque, a widowed French planter. De Becque’s two half-Polynesian children and Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat fuel the dramatic tension of subplot and main plot respectively, pointing up another interesting fact: South Pacific is the only R&H musical that actually addresses a pressing issue. Race was much on American minds in 1949; Truman had recently signed the executive order desegregating the armed forces. Treating the topic in the long-familiar terms of “forbidden” interracial romance, but with the twist of a half-step forward, South Pacific rode the wave of this new national awareness, sometimes bumpily: In 1957, after Governor Orval Faubus had made Arkansas a byword for bigotry, in at least one summer-stock production the actress playing the show’s heroine, Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, was driven offstage in tears by the storm of booing that broke out when she told de Becque she was from Little Rock.

Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher, plumps for the work’s seriousness, approaching it with quiet realism—almost cautiously, as if its romance might prove too fragile for our cynical time. But South Pacific has solidly built-in defenses against breakage, including the self-mocking lyrics in which Nellie ridicules her own romanticism. An additional pinch of that showbiz self-mockery wouldn’t have hurt Sher’s production, which at times seems too sedate. Kelli O’Hara’s winsome, beautifully sung Nellie surprisingly lacks vigor; Loretta Ables Sayre makes Bloody Mary more amiable than lewdly ferocious; Danny Burstein endows the shark-like Luther Billis with wistful perplexity. Against this, it’s the graver romantics who register most strongly: Li Jun Li makes a fetchingly delicate Liat, Matthew Morrison’s Lieutenant Cable supplies everything the role needs, including a hint of aristocratic hauteur, while handsome, stalwart-voiced Paulo Szot, an unusually young de Becque, will probably soon figure in a lot of romantic playgoers’ dreams. The physical production is, expectably, both lush and astute. And once the 31-piece orchestra lights into Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestration, you won’t mind much else.

Bloody Mary’s shamelessness finds a cockeyed mirror image in Gypsy‘s heroine, Madam Rose, who’ll stop at nothing to make her daughter a star. Transferred to Broadway from last summer’s Encores! revival, librettist Arthur Laurents’s new production of the 1959 classic demonstrates the work’s sturdiness by, at times, pushing so hard against it that a less sturdily built object would topple over. The spoof numbers for June’s vaudeville act, once so endearing in their scruffy kitschiness, have hardened into cold-as-steel camp, while June herself (Leigh Ann Larkin) has hardened into a smoldering bundle of negativity. The three leads, miraculously, have slipped out from under Laurents’s hard-edged insistence: Laura Benanti’s portrait of Louise, the ugly-duckling daughter, has become deeper and more moving; Boyd Gaines’s cheerily ulcer-pained Herbie now projects bigger power with no less charm. And Patti LuPone has enriched and refocused her performance till it actually deserves some of the torrents of gush the press has poured over her. Last summer’s Rose, who had no time for anyone but herself, has gone, replaced by a woman of genuine complexity, her ravening ego buried deep under her concern for her kids; this is a Rose who actually engages with the world, as well as sings the hell out of those great Styne-Sondheim songs.

Even so, Laurents rides her psychopathy into overemphasis. In the last scene, he stands his own script on its head by having Louise laugh in her mother’s face and walk off alone, leaving LuPone onstage to writhe in egomaniac desperation. Does he think 1959 audiences saw the original ending (mother and daughter walk off arm-in-arm) as a cure-all? Or that today’s audiences need things shoved at them ever more emphatically? The latter might explain why the theory of musical-theater evolution doesn’t hold up, though it wouldn’t explain why so much of Laurents’s excellent script still plays wonderfully without directorial pressuring.

Juno (also 1959), Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein’s musical version of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, both displays the incredible beauty that the form’s quest for seriousness could produce and shows how that quest inevitably failed. Set on the battlefield of 1921 Dublin, the show constitutes an aesthetic battlefield itself, never sure whether it’s dramatic opera or musical entertainment. Blitzstein achieved much in both modes, but his dualistic approach couldn’t capture the overriding sense of life in one particular place and time that makes O’Casey’s original great. Under Garry Hynes’s direction, Encores! gave a strong account of the work, though several key cast members unused to musical theater muddled things further by playing their idea of a “musical-comedy” style. This didn’t square well with Victoria Clark’s powerful, strongly grounded Juno, or with the lovely work of Celia Keenan-Bolger and Michael Arden (both struggling a bit with Blitzstein’s classical vocal demands) as Mary and Jerry.