David Pittsinger, who is about to join the tour in Raleigh, North Carolina as Emile de Becque, has played the part 130 times during the production's ongoing run at Lincoln Center in New York. So the other day I asked him: does doing the show still surprise him?
"The surprise comes as a daily thing," replied Pittsinger, who graduated from U Conn and then got serious musical training at Yale. "There's always the excitement of each day's new audience, and the daily interaction with colleagues: trying to better our stage rapport."
More specifically, Pittsinger says, "I'm am still a little surprised by how consistently I am struck by the power of the show's scenes dealing with race." He points to the sequence when Lt. Joe Cable sings "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" and then turns to Emile before the latter does "This Nearly Was Mine." "Sometimes," Pittsinger says, "I almost feel as if I'm looking at a younger version of myself." He adds, "I think everyone who portrays the characters of 'South Pacific finds things that we may not like in ourselves and may want to change. It isn't just a story of Nellie confronting her racism and everyone else being perfect."
I asked Pittsinger whether he was ever surprised by "South Pacific"'s ending: Nellie and Emile get back together to become a family. Will the honeymoon last? "That depends on who my Nellie is. Carmen Cusack" [who plays the part on the tour] will be the fifth performer I've played opposite in that role. Each one brings something strong to the part. Each Nellie would be a little different for Emile to settle down with. But whoever it is, I don't think that Nellie is going to flee back to Little Rock and or ever ask for a divorce. The love between Nellie and Emile is too strong."
Pittsinger usually inhabits the opera world (he just finished a run of "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera, playing Angelotti, and will do "Lulu" at the Met in the spring), so I asked him if playing Emile is much different from singing Mozart or Britten or any other great composer.
"In opera, you usually only have 6 or 8 performances in a run. It feels more like doing previews of a musical, where each performance can be totally unlike any other performance. With a long-running musical, you have much more time to explore a role. But make no mistake: Mozart's 'Magic Flute' was the music theater of its day: in that sense opera and Broadway are similar."
Pittsinger, who lives in Connecticut, with his wife, the singer Patricia Schuman, and their 10-year-old twins, is grateful to do "South Pacific" at this point in his rich and varied career. "I did 'Shenandoah' and 'Carnival' when I was young, and playing Emile has brought back a lot of feeling from that time - it conjures up the music I grew up with. I am very grateful for that."