For many people who see South Pacific, their first image of the show is not a still from the 1958 movie version or from the 2001 television adaptation but the poster for LCT's production -- the image you clicked on to navigate to this blog posting. Like many of the posters the theater uses to represent a production, that image was done by artist James McMullan.
McMullan's first LCT work was for the 1986 revival of John Guare's House of Blue Leaves, and although the process is not always the same for each assignment, McMullan says he does usually talk to the director -- and to the playwright if that person is alive. For South Pacific, that meant McMullan, who lives in Sag Harbor, New York, spoke with director Bartlett Sher.
"Sher said that one of the main things he was interested in was the racial aspects of the story," McMullan said. "Not just as it related to the love affairs but also in the sense of Americans going to the islands and intruding upon a native culture. It interested me that in our time, too, we've had American military adventures where soldiers go into countries where they don't understand the culture very well." McMullan added: "Maybe this subject fascinates me because I was born in China, where my grandfather was a missionary and where I lived until I was 6, when the Second World War broke out."
"With the South Pacific art," McMullan said, "I began, as I often do, with a cliche idea, which here was to put Nellie Forbush front and center and have palm trees in the background. Then, after discarding that idea, for some reason I thought of Gauguin, the French banker and artist who went to Tahiti and painted the natives. Gauguin's paintings were partly truthful about that culture and partly a romantic idea about it."
McMullan's finished artwork consisted of a base painting -- a kind of homage to Gauguin's "Mahana Maa" and "Mata Mua" -- that was done in watercolor and that depicted the natives. Over it is a gouache of the American sailors and Nellie Forbush. The Gauguin part was done with sable brushes, which, said McMullan, allow excellent control. The gouache was executed with bristle brushes. "Those," McMullan pointed out, "are usually used for oil paintings. They're scratchy, and less controllable."
The artwork from which LCT made its promotional materials is nine inches high. "People," McMullan said, "are always surprised at how small the originals are."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com