'South Pacific' music, themes modern despite World War II setting
By Alice T. Carter
Published: Sunday, October 31, 2010
When it comes to cross-over artists, David Pittsinger leads the pack.
Pittsinger plays Emile de Becque in the national touring production of "South Pacific," which opens Tuesday at the Benedum Center, Downtown, as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh series.
He also is an established opera singer who has sung multiple roles at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera and a dozen roles at Pittsburgh Opera, where he was twice honored as performer of the year.
In March, Pittsinger became what many believe is the first performer to star in a Broadway show and an opera on the same day.
After playing the matinee as de Becque in the revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, Pittsinger walked next door to sing the role of the ghost of Hamlet's father in the Metropolitan Opera's "Hamlet."
"It was a very special day for me," Pittsinger says.
Although that Saturday in March might have been the most dramatic example, his appearances in "South Pacific" are not the only instance of his performing in a musical genre other than opera.
His career includes roles in musicals such as "Shenandoah," "Man of La Mancha" and "Carnival" and operas such as "Tosca," "Don Giovanni," "Faust" and Mefistofele."
"I do them for the same reasons I do concerts and recitals. It adds variety and a lot to the legacy of a musical career. We artists today have the ability to inhabit and assimilate many different stages of music through the ages," he explains. "If Figaro or Giovanni are iconic parts, this is just another one."
Besides, he says, the worlds of opera and musical theater are not all that different.
"I think opera is musical theater. It's all musical theater. It's music for the stage. ... It's just a different style and time period," he says. "I'm really not finding any difference, except the schedule, which is grueling."
Broadway or national tour productions generally operate on a schedule of eight performances over a six-day week. Opera companies typically allow one or more days between performers' appearances so that their voices can rest.
"Last year, when I sang Scarpia (in the Metropolitan Opera's 'Tosca'), I worried because I had 10 performances in 14 days," he says. "But to be honest, there's only about 14 minutes singing (for me) in 'South Pacific.' That's like a warm up in the shower for me."
When director Bartlett Sher first approached Pittsinger about playing de Becque in the Lincoln Center revival of "South Pacific," Pittsinger was interested.
" 'South Pacific' is 60 years old and still fresh and relevant," he says.
Based on James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Tales of the South Pacific," the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is set on an island during World War II. Its story follows the romances of two couples -- the French plantation owner de Becque and Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and Navy airman Joe Cable and the young native islander Liat -- whose loves are threatened not just by the war but by their prejudices.
"Our country was at war and dealing with issues (such as) racism and May-December romances that are relevant today because we are dealing with the same things. ... We can see how far we have come and what's ahead of us."
He admires Rodgers and Hammerstein's rich score of musical classics that includes "Bali Ha'i," "Younger than Springtime" and "There is Nothin' Like a Dame."
He was particularly eager to play de Becque.
"Roles like this are few and far between. ... This is one of the most highly respected," he says. "Musically, it is so rich. It has one of the greatest duos in modern musical history ('Some Enchanted Evening,' which he sings with Carmen Cusack's Forbush)."
"He is perfect for the role," says Christopher Hahn, general director of Pittsburgh Opera. He has followed Pittsinger's career since they first met while working at San Francisco Opera. "It's great to see him flourish as an artist. The thing he always had, even as a young singer, was a developed sense of real refinement and ability in his sound and bearing in his approach to the role."
Hahn says the role of de Becque is a good fit for Pittsinger, whose age is finally aligning with the roles that best suit with his bass voice. "He always had the ability to play with gravitas and was someone with this bearing of experience," he says.
Pittsinger is looking forward to renewing his acquaintances with people and a town he loves.
"I know Pittsburgh pretty well. I had great opportunities to hone my craft here. It holds a special place in my heart."
Ask Anderson Davis where his home is, and he's not quite sure how to answer.
His mailing address is Baton Rogue, La., where he grew up. His area code is still 412 from his student years in Pittsburgh. His apartment is in New York City.
And his bed is in whatever city "South Pacific" is playing.
Davis, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in 2006, plays Lt. Joseph Cable in the national touring production of "South Pacific," which begins performances Tuesday at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
He's been on the road since the tour began in the fall of 2009 and still hasn't tired of traveling or performing.
"We've had 30 opening nights," he says. "Every time we go to a new city, it's a brand new show".
The opportunity to work with director Bartlett Sher and his creative team is what initially attracted Davis to "South Pacific." He was not disappointed.
"It's been even more rewarding than I expected," Davis says. "Bart is a real talent. He was able in three weeks rehearsal to let us -- the four principles -- feel that this was a brand new show that we could re-create organically."
In 2008, the Broadway revival of "South Pacific" won seven Tony awards including one for Sher as best director of a musical.
Despite those accolades, when he set about mounting the national touring production, Sher started from the beginning, Davis says.
"He made it clear we could make it our own," he says. "We found fun ways to reconnect to this classic piece of musical theater and figure out the reality of these people."
For Davis, that meant doing research to learn how military men of the period stood, spoke and saluted.
"In some ways, it's still similar. The salute is still the same," says Davis, who believes that authentically reproducing World War II military behaviors is a form of respect.
Davis also has long had a respect for the show's Rodgers and Hammerstein score.
"When you study voice, 'Younger Than Springtime' is page one of the tenor song book. So there's a certain amount of expectation when you are singing it," he says of the song he sings in the first act. "It's an amazing challenge to sing well and sing it like it's not been sung before."Additional Information:
Presented by: PNC Broadway Across America • Pittsburgh
When: Tuesday-Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7
Where: Benedum Center, Downtown
Details: 412-456-6666 or website
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