Monday, August 31, 2009

Backstage Blog: PLAYING EMILE

by Brendan Lemon

Rod Gilfry, who is playing Emile de Becque, grew up in a musical household. He has sung Curly in “Oklahoma” and Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” (twice). He sings “Some Enchanted Evening” in his cabaret-style, one-man show. But Gilfry had never seen a production of South Pacific until he signed on for the tour.

“It’s true,” Gilfry said recently after an afternoon rehearsal in New York. “I only saw it after I got this job. I went to see the show at Lincoln Center Theater, and I was really stunned by it – the beautiful designs, the singing, how real [director] Bart Sher kept everything. I’m deeply affected by greatness, and I was deeply affected that nigh

Gilfry, who grew up in southern California and who still has his home base there, in Rancho Cucamonga, feels that his combination of qualities suits him well for Emile. “I’m the right age,” says Gilfry. (Emile is 44; the performer is a young-looking 50.) “And I speak French. For six years, I had a teacher who was French, so English spoken with a French accent is pretty natural for me.”

Gilfry has sung those Rodgers & Hammerstein roles, and he met his wife while they were doing a musical in high school, but his career has been identified primarily with classical musical and opera. “I didn’t want to be an opera singer at first,” he says. “I wanted to be a soloist in works by Bach and Handel and Beethoven. Then I decided that to be really successful I needed to do well in opera.”

Gilfry had three small roles during the Los Angeles Opera’s inaugural season, in 1986, then spent several years based in Europe, singing standard baritone roles like Don Giovanni. He has originated new work at home and abroad: as Stanley in Andre Previn’s opera “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for example.

“I enjoy singing in Europe,” Gilfry says. (He’ll be taking a break in the middle of the South Pacific tour to do “The Sound of Music” in Paris; his daughter Carin, who just finished her master’s at Juilliard, will sing Liesl.) “But I’m excited about being able to tour with an American musical in the United States.
I’ve never done that before.”

Asked about the differences between singing a musical-theatre role and an operatic role, Gilfry comments, “The vocal demands are less in musica
l theater. I recently sang the title role in an opera in Amsterdam that was five-and-a-half hours long.” (It was Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise.”)

He continues: “In opera, there is less flexibility allowed for interpreting what the composer has written. With Verdi, for example, it all right there in the score. You have a lot more latitude in musical theatre, and I enjoy that.”

Gilfry, though, is quick to point out that musical theatre has its own challenges. “Going from dialogue to singing can be tricky. You have to make sure the transitions are logical. It helps a lot when the composer and lyricist were aware of that when they
created the piece. That’s certainly the case with South Pacific.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


By Brendan Lemon

The excitement was palpable this week in a midtown-Manhattan rehearsal room as the cast and creatives of the South Pacific tour gathered en masse for the first time. Looking around the room, which included not only the folks going on the road but the entire South Pacific community, Bartlett Sher, the production's director, said, "It's amazing to see how many people are here."

Before Sher took the floor, other individuals essential to the enterprise also spoke. Bob Boyett, the enterprise's producer, welcomed everyone and spoke about how "brilliantly" this revival had been received when it opened on Broadway in April 2008. The executive producer of that staging, Bernard Gersten of Lincoln Center Theater, extended greetings "on behalf of the mother country." Ted Chapin, the President and Executive Director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, introduced Mary Rodgers Guettel, the daughter of South Pacific composer, Richard Rodgers, and Alice Hammerstein, the daughter of the show's lyricist and co-book writer, Oscar Hammerstein II.

Other connections to history were invoked by people in the room. Sher stressed how South Pacific is "written out of a real story." He made a connection to the social climate when the production premiered in 2008 on Broadway, when the country, he said, was fighting two wars and George W. Bush was president, and compared it to 2009, with a new president. The political climate, Sher said, was now "a completely different thing." (A nonpartisan historian might point out that those two wars are still going on.)

What is not different from last year's Broadway production and the tour's sure-to-be-glorious version of it is the amount of talent involved. Genson Blimline, who is the tour's Stewpot, was also in the Lincoln Center production. (Other Lincoln Center vets going on tour are Mike Evariste and Eric L. Christian.) Blimline, who recently got engaged to South Pacific tour performer Jacqueline Colmer, looked around this week's rehearsal room and told me, "I really glad we're going to be able to share the South Pacific experience with the rest of the country - not just San Francisco and L.A. but places like Fayetteville and Lincoln, Nebraska."


For more pictures from our First Day of Rehearsal go to our Facebook fan page or our Friends of NETworks website.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


By Brendan Lemon

That Christopher Gattelli's credit in the playbill says "Musical Staging" instead of "Choreography" has something to do with South Pacific's history: in the 1949 Broadway production, director Joshua Logan, with help from the cast, did the movement himself, without the assistance of a professional choreographer. But Gattelli's credit also has to do with the philosophy behind South Pacific in its 2008 Broadway revival and for that production’s 2009-2010 national tour.

"Bart Sher” – the revival’s director – “said from the beginning that he wanted to treat the show as a play," Gattelli told me during a rehearsal break last year. "And in order to achieve that philosophy the dancing has to be based in reality: everything has to be look as natural -- as 'un-choreographed' -- as possible."

Even with this outlook, however, Gattelli and Sher tend to bump up the level of the movement when the onstage talent allows. "We don’t cast the show specifically for dance background," Gattelli says, “but we use the talents that exist among the actors."

When it comes to two of the best-known big numbers in the first act, "Bloody Mary" and "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," Gattelli aims for authenticity. "Back in the 1940s, people didn't have as many distractions as we do now -- no television or videogames. Consequently, more of them learned how to dance. Which means that the idea of the men in these numbers – the Seabees -- dancing pretty well makes historical sense. At the same time, these men are in the construction trades. They have to move like guys, not like slick, polished Fred Astaires."

Gattelli, whose upcoming projects include choreographing an Oct. 26 benefit concert for The Actors Fund (the event’s chairs are Jo Sullivan Loesser and Sir Paul McCartney) observes that the Seabees' first-act numbers are part of the reason that South Pacific appeals to male audiences as much as to female audiences. He adds: "That group also includes Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. And not many more."


By Brendan Lemon

When students of the American musical discuss why it took nearly 60 years to revive South Pacific on Broadway and then launch it on its new national tour they frequently cite the difficulty of finding the right person to play Emile de Becque. Laurence Maslon, the author of a beautiful, highly enjoyable recent book called The South Pacific Companion, is fully aware of the casting issues but in an interview the other day immediately zeroed in on something else: timing.

"One of the problems with bringing back South Pacific in a major way," Maslon remarked, "has been the question: what's the right cultural climate in which to revive the show? Sadly, we are in two wars now, Iraq and Afghanistan, which provide an apt backdrop for Bart Sher’s production, even though the circumstances of Iraq and Afghanistan are very different from those of World War II."

To the theatergoers of 1949, when South Pacific debuted on Broadway, many of the documentary photographs in Maslon's book--Times Square on V-E Day; Marines going ashore on the Solomon Islands--would have been highly familiar, as would the life-and-death stakes in the show's story.

"In those initial audiences," Maslon said, "everybody would have known someone who had fought in the war. Of those people, probably one-half would have known somebody who had fought in the South Pacific and probably one-third would have known someone who died in the South Pacific. Those audiences' feelings were still fresh. That's very different from now, when probably very few theatergoers know somebody who's died in Iraq."

Such historical compare-and-contrast has played a large role in the work of Maslon, who is an associate arts professor at NYU and the author, with Michael Kantor, of Broadway: The American Musical. "The first show I saw, at the age of 9," Maslon said, "was 1776. Whether I was aware of it at the time or not, I was forever impressed with how someone could take something real--in this case, the Declaration of Independence-- and turn it into something musical."

If some aspects of the historical context of South Pacific were perhaps the main revelations for Maslon in the writing of his volume, the process by which Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan wrote the musical's book was also eye-opening. Maslon said: "People tend to think, Oh, those men took two stories from James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and turned them into a musical. But when you dig deeper you discover that they used something from every one of Michener's stories. The level at which Hammerstein combed through Michener's book is amazing. It's one of the most thorough jobs of adaptation for a musical that I've ever encountered."