There are quite a few good reasons to see the new revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. One is Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, a transfuge from the opera world who emits a veritable glow of old-fashioned virility as plantation owner Emile de Becque. Another is hearing Richard Rodgers’s score and Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations delivered by a 30-piece orchestra. With producers saving costs by scrimping on musicians nowadays, this size has become very rare in contemporary theater, and so we’ve progressively forgotten how spectacularly lush American musicals can sound.
In the current production of South Pacific, the players are in a pit under the movable stage; during the overture, said stage retracts so the audience can see them. It’s an exhilarating moment, confirmed by the orchestra taking a bow at the end of the overture. Even after the cast exits nearly three hours later, people stay behind to catch the last musical drops—a rare event in New York, where audiences rudely flee the theater as quickly as possible, as if hunted out of their seats by invisible hounds.
Orchestrators in general are under appreciated if not entirely ignored by all but true musical-theater buffs. The Tony Award for Best Orchestrations was introduced only in 1997 after all; the first one went to Jonathan Tunick, whose contribution to Stephen Sondheim’s music has been enormous. Orchestrators help fill a score’s musical palette, and in fact often provide all the textures and colors we remember; in an interview, Tunick suggested that they “become the final arbiter of how the music is written, just as the musical director is responsible for how the music is performed.”
Not to detract from Rodgers, but it’s impossible to ignore Russell Bennett’s contribution to South Pacific—indeed, to the composer’s oeuvre as whole. (Tunick mentioned “Lonely Room” in Oklahoma as “a great example of an orchestration that helps set the mood and character, much like a piece of theater design, like sets and lighting.”)
With Gypsy also employing a large orchestra that honors the work of original orchestrators Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler, we can only hope that the revival of Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey this fall will follow in these footsteps and preserve the work of golden-age master Hans Spialek.