MUSICAL theatre came into my life by a circuitous route. My wife is of Indian background and when we first married we watched a lot of Hindi movies without subtitles. All Hindi movies are musicals and I found that not only did I like the songs but, given their dance and exaggerated physical action, I could follow them pretty well and understand how they advanced the storyline. They say that once you understand a philosophy you tend to believe in it. Certainly this is true of Hindi movies.
I have always liked opera but purely for the music, almost never for the story, although I find it hard to remain dry-eyed at the poignant moments of Tosca or Madama Butterfly.
Seeing South Pacific, with the incomparable Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the lead, reminded me what a powerful form musical theatre can be. I heartily endorse the cult of this production presented by Opera Australia. But I want to enter a contrarian caveat. I think it succeeds as music much more than as theatre, and for my money this is all due to Rhodes.
OA is to be congratulated for occasionally staging a popular musical, and to be congratulated artistically. Without the opera’s involvement I would never have heard so melodious, familiar and beloved a song as Some Enchanted Evening sung with anything like the power and beauty that Rhodes brought to it.
It is no disrespect to the rest of the cast — and they were all good — to say they were blown off the stage by Rhodes’s majestic voice. Any time he came on my interest quickened because I knew he was going to produce something memorable musically. In fact I would have been happy if he had sung all the male parts, notwithstanding that some of them were for higher voices and he is no tenor. Whatever theatricality and plot South Pacific contained were as nothing compared with Rhodes’s voice, though they made a good gift wrapping for it.
I hope Rhodes doesn’t take this the wrong way but I must confess that my musical tastes are a little middlebrow. I have a candy ear. For me, music is 70 per cent melody (the sweeter the better), 20 per cent character and 10 per cent rhythm. So for opera I like Verdi and Puccini, the most delirious enjoyment I have at concerts is provided by Tchaikovsky, and if I see the exquisite Australian Chamber Orchestra, I like the program to be mostly Mozart.
I respect and admire jazz but some parts of it, from Dixie to contemporary, can tend to have too much character and too little melody. But with my candy ear I can be very susceptible to certain types of musical theatre. Jersey Boys, which had a great run in several Australian cities, was splendid. I saw it in Melbourne with good friends who were much higher brow than I am. They were inclined to leave at the interval while I was absolutely loving it.
It is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and I am old enough to have had impressed on my brain at a tender age every one of the Four Seasons’ hits. Because it’s a show about a pop group there is every excuse to perform a big number of their hits. And pop music, for all of its limitations, is generally accomplished at catchy melody. As musical theatre I thought it better than South Pacific. It was not better as music, because none of the Jersey Boys performers had anything like Rhodes’s power and majesty.
But as musical theatre it wove an engrossing plot around the career and marital dramas of the group and did enough to advance this modest soap opera drama quite well between the songs. South Pacific was more ambitious in trying to make the music integrally part of the plot, and its plot is more ethically worthy, being a plea against racial prejudice.
But you see I already hate racism, so instructing me on this point, though entirely welcome, does not earn South Pacific any extra points from me purely as entertainment.
Lisa McCune was engaging in South Pacific and is a splendid actress altogether, but neither her voice, nor any other, was in the same league as Rhodes’s. And finally the songs of South Pacific, while familiar, are mostly not all that good. Some Enchanted Evening and Younger than Springtime are very, very lovely. But the others — There is Nothing like a Dame and I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair — are irritating in their familiarity rather than beguiling in their melody.
But if Rhodes had sung them, I might well think differently.