When the musical South Pacific debuted in 1949, it was considered radical for its treatment of issues of race and interracial romance. Opening this weekend is a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic by Musical Theater Heritage, who've carved out a niche in Kansas City for the unique manner in which they stage their shows.
Here’s the cast on the night of a recent rehearsal:
Sarah Crawford answered these questions as part of our new monthly series, Director's Cuts:
The model of Musical Theater Heritage (MTH) productions seems counterintuitive almost. You're doing big, Broadway musicals performed in an intimate space with actors using scripts resting on music stands. How do you make the transition from the big musical to the intimate musical?
In the beginning, eight years ago for me, I was quite skeptical about how that transformation would work. And now, coming from years and years of musical theater experience, I wouldn't do it any other way. The gifts of stripping down an enormous musical and focusing on the heart of the material, which is the book and the score, the gifts are enormous. They far outweigh the compromises. It kind of exposes the heart in an intimate way. And if you love musical theater, then you'll love seeing your favorite shows in that intimate expression.
So if a big musical has lots of spectacle, at MTH there's less spectacle. But I think from what I've seen, there's more emphasis on story. There's more pith.
Exactly. You focus on the heart. People tell me time and time again — and I just don't mean once a show, I mean ten times a show — they'll say, "I know this musical like the back of my hand and I've never understood it this way." I mean we have great actors and I feel like I'm a strong director but it really is the gift of the format that does that for us.
That's an obvious plus, but you said there are drawbacks. Do you ever feel stymied by the stripped-down intimacy?
Only in my pre-production preparation do I feel a bit apprehensive before I dive into it. You just find ways to tell the story from an actor's waist up.
We don't have zero props. We do use props. We do stage. And there is a bit of set piece, a bit of costume. They're all just carefully chosen tokens. No helicopters. No curtains. No set pieces moving. But you get everything else you need. And I say that confidently. I say that as someone who is passionate about all kinds of musical theater. Even spectacle musical theater.
Speaking of a helicopter, would you want to do Miss Saigon?
Oh, I'd love to do Miss Saigon. For me, I used to think there were many shows I couldn't do in this format. I feel that far less now. I think about West Side Story and how would we honor that full dance show. I used to think I couldn't. Now I know I can. There's not a show I wouldn't do — I think. There wouldn't be a helicopter but I don't think you'd miss it.
I want to talk about the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," which was revolutionary in 1949.
Quite a risk by Rodgers and Hammerstein to put that kind of song in a musical they wanted to sell well. Broadway got it. New Yorkers loved it. It was when it went on tour that it started to strike up some serious controversy.
Can you talk about what the song says?
Indeed. There's an issue in South Pacific that is sometimes glossed over and sometimes focused on — and of course we focus on any meat we can grab ahold of, so this will be an intricate part of our story.
Our central character — who you love, by the way, who you relate to, and adore — has some issues with racism. She is uncomfortable when she learns the man she loves has had a relationship with a "woman of color," as she calls it, and actually has two small children with that woman, and she ends up saying she cannot be with him because of this. Because her parents would not be okay with it. Because it's something that was born in her.
And then another character, Lt. Cable, happens to be going through the same issue because he's fallen in love with a Tonganese woman, and cannot marry her for the very same reasons, says, "You know what, it's not born in us. We have to be taught to fear people with different eyes. To dislike people who sound different than we do."
In today's day and age, we embrace and focus and discuss things like that. Back in 1949, it was considered a great risk.
You've been directing these shows for eight years. Are there people who love musicals who you meet who haven't come because they're not sure how they're going to like the version they're going to see?
And what do you tell them?
You know, it's hard to market a new concept. And this is for Kansas City a fairly new concept. It's hard to identify what we are. We are not concert. That actually means just doing the songs and standing at a mike. We say that because our audience can wrap their brain around it. I like to call it semi-staged with a twist.
But yes, there are people who are hesitant. The first year or two, we had a couple of people say at intermission, "I didn't know it would be like this." It doesn't happen anymore.
Musical Theater Heritage presents "South Pacific," Aug. 7 - 24, at the Off Center Theatre, Crown Center, level 3, 2450 Grand, Kansas City, Mo. 816-221-6987.
The “In This Scene...” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.