Rehearsals of The King and I don’t begin until January 29, so you will have to wait until then, or until performances begin on March 12, to learn from me complete specifics about the production. Ted Sperling, however, who is the music director for the staging, gave me an overall clue or two during a conversation the other day.
“As with the Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific,” he said, referring to the 2008 staging directed by Bartlett Sher, “the approach that Bart and I are taking is to respect the original impulses of the creators.” He added: “We want to respect their integrity and try to get inside their heads as much as possible before making any adjustments.”
Greater changes, Sperling explained, might be applied to a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, or any other show, set in a period different from that of its original production. “You might want to use different orchestrations,” he said, “to suggest the feel of a specific time or place.” Orchestrations, I should mention, are one of Sperling’s many areas of interest and expertise: along with Adam Guettel and Bruce Coughlin, Sperling won a 2005 Tony award for orchestrating The Light in the Piazza.
Sperling explained to me one of the few significant adjustments to orchestration made for South Pacific: “Throughout the whole show, the sailors and Seabees are waiting to get closer to battle. You almost forget that it’s a possibility. Near the end, they are called up. In the original version, the song ‘Honey Bun’ returns in a very upbeat way. But something about the merriness of that rendition didn’t feel right. We stripped it down, starting with virtually no accompaniment. There was slow-motion marching onstage. We only gradually introduced the original orchestration. I thought this made for a poignant sequence.” I’m sure I’m not the only member of the South Pacific audience who agreed completely.
Whether there will be any similar adjustments to The King and I will be determined in the rehearsal and preview periods. In the meantime, Sperling said he is learning about the show. “I’m doing my research. I’ve never done this show in and of itself. I remember seeing the movie as a kid, and my sister was in a camp production in Westchester” – the suburban NYC county where Sperling grew up.
Sperling, who is the Artistic Director of the Collegiate Chorale and Principal Conductor of the Westchester Philharmonic, has conducted Rodgers and Hammerstein selections many times over the years. “They were very distinctive artists,” he said. “With Hammerstein, there is simplicity: he’s not known for the intricate structure of his lyrics. But that allows them to pack a wallop. I grew to appreciate his approach more and more when I conducted South Pacific night after night.” As for Rodgers, Sperling added, “he writes these beautiful melodies, and Hammerstein’s lyrics really allow those melodies to soar.”
While The King and I is in early rehearsal, Sperling will be directing a production of Handel’s Susanna, to be performed at NYC’s Town Hall on February 3. He will also conduct. “This is really a return to my roots,” Sperling said. “In high school and college, I was very active in the baroque music world. I’ve done Bach and Handel as a singer, conductor, and harpsichordist, and I’m very excited to be re-entering that world with Susanna.”
“I’m also excited to be re-entering the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Sperling said. “South Pacific gave so much pleasure both to audiences and the people who worked on it.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.