NOTE: You can hear CD selections and see behind-the-scenes video from the new cast recording here
Last Thursday, there was such a crush at the Barnes and Noble bookstore across from Lincoln Center that you might have thought J. K. Rowling was on the premises. The crowd, however, had assembled at the store's event space not for further news of Harry Potter but for a glimpse of the leading actors ofSouth Pacific, who were there to perform songs from the show and to promote the production's cast CD, which was released on May 27. Laurence Maslon, whose book The South Pacific Companion was also being touted, served as the host.
Among the audience were Marjorie Smith, of Greenwich; her daughter, Mary Hartwell (Chicago); and Mary's 10-year-old daughter, Madison. Collectively, said Mrs. Smith, they are known as "3-M." "For the past three years," she continued, "we have come to New York in late May, just after Madison's school lets out for the summer. The first year, we dragged Madison to museums, but she was much happier going to musicals, so now we concentrate on that. I wasn't sure that Madison would like South Pacific.She's part of the 'High School Musical' generation, you know. I was afraid that South Pacific would be too serious. But she loved it. She thought Bloody Mary was a hoot, and she was very jealous of the child actors who play Emile's children. Madison has ambitions. She aspires to a life upon the wicked stage. She's still of an age when she thinks it's all gems and roses."
Had Mrs. Smith seen South Pacific in 1949? "Oh, yes, of course," she answered. "The big moment was when Mary Martin washed her hair onstage. We had never seen anything quite like that." And how would she compare the original cast recording to the new one? "I haven't had a chance to listen to the new one yet. But my daughter and granddaughter have listened, and they love it."
Mrs. Smith was not alone in her enthusiasm that day at Barnes and Noble, where Paulo Szot, Kelli O'Hara, Matthew Morrison, and Loretta Ables Sayre performed and Danny Burstein and Li Jun Li were also present: two hundred and fifty CDs were sold to the spillover crowd.
The South Pacific CD has been ringing up boffo numbers all over the place. It debuted at Number One on Billboard's Broadway chart, and for its first two weeks on-sale it was making regular appearances on Amazon's Top Ten, right up there with Usher and Madonna and Coldplay. It's been a momentary throwback to the 1950s, when the cast albums of South Pacific and My Fair Lady would top the Hit Parade for weeks at a stretch.
Does Mrs. Smith think that these sales point to a pop-culture resurgence for musicals? "I'm not sure," she replied. "But I knew something was happening a few years ago when Madison and all of her friends would dance around the house to Gwen Stefani singing 'Rich Girl.' She didn't believe me at first when I told her it was adapted from Fiddler on the Roof. Now she knows better."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com