The other day a reader of this website mailed us a question: "Are there any plans to tape this glorious production for television?" We answered: "Sorry, there are no plans at this time for a TV broadcast." Another reader responded: "That is criminal."
I've been fielding versions of this question ever since South Pacific opened in April, and hearing similarly stark expressions of disappointment when I break the news. While I understand the desire of theatergoers to have a record of the production for their home library, and the wish of those who will not see the show live to have a visual recording, I cannot say that I am distraught that, as far as we know at the moment, this South Pacific will not be made into a television or feature film. (There is always the possibility of a "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcast at some point, but for now nothing is scheduled.)
Why? For one thing, there is a glorious CD recording of the production: these marvelous voices - Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison and Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre and the inimitable ensemble - will not be lost to history. For another, the production will be embarking on a national tour next year, meaning that many people who cannot make it to New York will have an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.
The main reason, however, I am not disappointed is that most musicals, however great, lose something ineffable in the trip to the screen. (Even stage productions taped as is usually can't compare to the live version.) And what, exactly, disappears? Each case presents a different loss, but, in general, the process is the show-biz equivalent of what Robert Frost once remarked about linguistic transpositions of more literary forms: "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." Or, as my old New Yorker magazine colleague, the critic Pauline Kael, once wrote quite brutally: "Most Broadway musicals are dead before they reach the movies - the routines are so worked out they're stiff, and the jokes are embalmed in old applause."
There are exceptions, of course: Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl and The Sound of Music. But the beauty, the uniqueness of live theater is that it is only happening as you are watching it: in the moment. The likes of that particular performance will never be seen again.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com