The Maltz Jupiter Theatre and the Wick Theatre are both grappling with a dilemma. Each has selected a classic musical – 1949’s South Pacific and 1947’s Brigadoon, respectively – because of its intrinsic dramatic and musical quality. But how do you approach such a show, knowing that your audience has probably already seen it, often many times over?
To director Gordon Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific, based on a portion of a James Michener novel about World War II on a remote Pacific island, is “like the Shakespeare of musical theater. The fact that the show has been done before is, I think, very similar to the way we would approach any Shakespeare, which is trying to tell the story in the clearest, most vibrant way.”
Although Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s South Pacific was written 70 years ago, it has surprisingly contemporary resonances. “Thematically, it’s about growing up in the midst of the most life-or-death circumstances, in the midst of war,” says Greenberg. “Because in some ways we are perennially at war now, there is no more a sense of safety that there was prior to World War II. One must always be on alert and aware of the proximity of mortality. Whether from terrorism or disease. It’s very present in our lives.”
Brigadoon, from the pens of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, is a romantic fantasy about a couple of New Yorkers in the Scottish Highlands who stumble upon a village that comes to life for one day every 100 years. Yet according to its director, Jeffrey Moss, it too speaks to an audience in 2018.
“Because this show is about a community of people who have been greatly affected by something and have come together in a way they never knew they would,” says Moss, speaking just days after the Parkland shootings. “We’re living in a world of that. We’re living through that.”
Brigadoon, he feels, is “very much like ‘Come From Away’ (the post 9-11 musical), about a group of people that were affected by something, a group of people who were surrounded by hate, and were saved. And now they are different. They’ve been touched by something.”
In 1947, the show was aimed at a world that had just come out of the war and “it was about the change in America then,” explains Moss. “People say that ‘Brigadoon’ represented war-torn Europe, and Tommy and Jeff are the American victors, the eternal optimists. That contrast was very much what I think that audience in (1947) saw. The audience in 2018 sees a group of people who have bonded together, who are a community,” bonded by a miracle.
“But for every miracle, there’s a price to be paid,” he says. “The price here is that they can’t leave. And the people of Brigadoon are learning to balance it out, to accept what they have to because they’re safe.”
Greenberg and Moss agree that there is no need to call attention to these modern resonances for them to be apparent. “Ultimately I think the audience will be able to pick up on it quickly,” says Greenberg. “Yes, one emphasizes what one finds to be the important themes in the show, and I certainly will do that. But I will say this show is so well built that my job is really to shine a light from inside of it. To make it feel genuine and make it stylistically cohesive.”
“If I do anything to a show, it’s letting the story rise to the top,” adds Moss. “Not have it crowded out by anything else.”
Still, the audience’s familiarity with a show’s musical score presents a challenge – getting them to listen to the lyrics for their dramatic impact, instead of sitting back and humming along to “the big hit song.”
“How do we make sure they hear it?” asks Greenberg. “The answer is lots of little adjustments and tweaks, trying at certain points to subvert people’s expectations, whether it’s pulling out the music all of a sudden. We have a moment in ‘Younger than Springtime’ where I said, ‘Let’s just try a big crescendo there, then a huge railroad track pause, then just nothing for a few beats.’ It becomes magical and more urgent.”
Moss confronts the same challenge with Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love.” “I know what you mean when people think it’s just a song I know, but it’s not just another song to the actors doing it,” he insists. ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ is a very clever love song. Mr. Lerner, they say, was a student of Oscar Hammerstein’s in a way, certainly a fan of his. ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ and [Oklahoma’s] ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ are similar. They both possess a wonderful way of expressing the growing feeling between two people,” on the cusp of love but not yet there. “So you have to listen to the lyric, because it makes you listen to it.”
Another way these productions will be distinctive is with their designs. Greenberg wanted the show’s Pacific island to feel exotic to a Jupiter audience, so he avoided the show’s usual look. “We certainly don’t need to bring them to a beach or to palm trees, because that’s across the street. What we want to do here is remind people of the reality of war. So a lot of our set feels like that rusted corrugated metal.
“No, no palm trees onstage,” he repeats. “Those are in the parking lot. Onstage there is World War II and the south Pacific. You will certainly feel like you are in another place and time.”
For Brigadoon, Moss needed to create an otherworldly place contrasted with a realistic setting, and the ability to move back and forth between them. So he commissioned a new scenic design, instead of settling for a rental from another stage company. As he told his designer, “I said ‘I want this to be a play that will move from scene to scene like we move from idea to idea.’ I’ve worked with these designers before, and we think alike in the way we try to propel the storytelling. It will not be like any other previous production.”
Asked to sum up why area theatergoers should come see South Pacific, even though they have seen it before, Greenberg says, “The reason I would go to see it is for this cast. It’s a cast full of beautiful people, major performers, highly, highly seasoned, very sophisticated Broadway actors. This whole production is so rich and sumptuous and transporting, so full of entertainment value and soulfulness and humanity.”
“People have seen this before,” says Moss of Brigadoon, “yet they come back. Why? Because it’s compelling, the score is compelling. It’s a show for romantics. But come soon: it only happens once every 100 years.”
SOUTH PACIFIC, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. March 6 -25. $58 and up. 561-575-2223, or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.
BRIGADOON, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. March 8–April 8. $85. 561-995-2333 or visit thewick.org.