That Christopher Gattelli's credit in the playbill says "Musical Staging" instead of "Choreography" has something to do with South Pacific's history: in the 1949 Broadway production, director Joshua Logan, with help from the cast, did the movement himself, without the assistance of a professional choreographer. But Gattelli's credit also has to do with the philosophy behindSouth Pacific in its Lincoln Center Theater revival.
"Bart [Sher] said from the beginning that he wanted to treat the show as a play," Gattelli said one day this week before a rehearsal in which the first-act movement was about to be "frozen" -- i.e., no further changes scheduled. "And in order to achieve that philosophy the dancing has to be based in reality: everything has to be look as natural -- as 'un-choreographed' -- as possible."
Even with this outlook, however, in rehearsal Gattelli and Sher have bumped up the level of the movement when the onstage talent allowed. "We didn't cast the show specifically for dance background," Gattelli says, "but we really lucked out in terms of ability anyway. For the 'Follies' number that opens the second act, we didn't plan to have genuine tap dancing. But so many of the company could tap dance that we couldn't resist including it. Nor in that number could I resist getting Margot up on pointe." (If the dancer-in-question had not been able to execute balletic steps it would have been highly ironic: her full name is Margot De La Barre.)
Regardless of the dancers' unexpected abilities, Gattelli is quick to point out that in the "Follies" number the overall sense of the performers is meant to be intentionally unprofessional. "That's not just part of the realistic feel we wanted," he says. "It's also because 'Follies' is comic - it's funnier to do it that way."
When it came to two of the best-known big numbers in the first act, "Bloody Mary" and "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," Gattelli again aimed for authenticity. "Back in the 1940s, people didn't have as many distractions as we do now -- no television or videogames. Consequently, more of them learned how to dance. Which means that the idea of the men in these numbers dancing pretty well makes historical sense. At the same time, these men are in the construction trades. They have to move like guys, not like slick, polished Fred Astaires."
Gattelli, whose next projects include the choreography for a Broadway revival of Godspell and the direction and choreography for a stage version of a beloved TV Muppet musical called Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas, observes that the Seabees' first-act numbers are part of the reason that South Pacific appeals to male audiences as much as to female audiences. He adds: "That group also includes Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. And not many more."