Before rehearsals began this past January on Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific, much preparation had already taken place among all the major parties to the production. Among these activities was a scholarly restoration of the musical's score, which was undertaken by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, under the leadership of R & H's music director, Bruce Pomahac.
Pomahac has worked at R & H since 1992. The Milwaukee native got his start as a vocal arranger for Doc Severinsen's band, and began working on Broadway shows with a revival of Meet Me in St. Louis, in 1989.
Brendan Lemon: What is involved in the restoration of a score like that of South Pacific?
Bruce Pomahac: It's taken for granted that when you perform a classic musical that the orchestra is playing exactly what was performed on opening night. That often isn't the case. Musicals are assembled under a lot of pressure and last-minute changes. So the parts the musicians are playing from have a lot scribbled on them. As the decades pass it's hard to figure out what is there on the page. Notes get cut, and things can be simplified for road productions. Years later, what we end up with is something close to original, but is not quite the original exactly.
BL: What was the first restoration of a score that you were involved with?
BP: Carousel is first show we restored at R & H, for the 1992 London production, which came to Lincoln Center Theater. Originally, it was orchestrated for 40 players. Three years after its 1945 Broadway opening, it went out on tour with around 20 pieces. For a long time, that was the orchestration used for Carousel. Then we started getting calls from conductors around the country, saying "Something is wrong with the orchestration." We couldn't believe it. What we found out was that indeed there were things that had gone missing. We had to do something about that, and we did.
BL: Describe the specifics involved in a restoration.
BP: We look at the original pit parts and the notes from original production. We try to go over the music and make sure that everything that was there on opening night is there in the parts.
Years ago, copying of musicians' parts was done by hand. So the music was written on over and over, and could be hard to decipher.
A copyist would be asked to clean things up. Often, some of the work that had been done in the creative process got left out. With South Pacific, as with The King and I and The Sound of Music and other shows we license, we go to the original scores and parts and make sure that everything is back in place, so that someone like Ted Sperling [the music director for South Pacific] has a map of what was there originally.
BL: What's the hardest part of restoring a score?
BP: Conflicting information. A score might be performed one way, and written-down information is saying something else.
BL: It sounds as if restoration isn't only a question of correct notes.
BP: It's about discovering not only the correct notes but how the notes were played -- the dynamics the players used, the bowings they used, the accents.
There are mistakes that get handed down. In the movie of The Sound of Music, in the title song, Julie Andrews sang: "To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way." On Broadway, Mary Martin sang "in its way." A mistake was made when the vocal score was printed. Andrews just sang the wrong lyric.
BL: What is the primary reason for doing a restoration?
BP: So that today's artists know the original intention. We want them to have what Rodgers and Hammerstein gave them. We are saying: this is what they were going for.
We're very careful about what we do. We have to make sure in a restoration that we're not putting ourselves in it. Sometimes when there's a hole in a score, that's hard to do.
BL: Can you give me an example of something especially interesting that you discovered in the research for South Pacific?
BP: Josh Logan [the director and co-book writer of South Pacific] always wanted Cable to sing "Younger Than Springtime" emotionally backwards: start big, and then become intimate. The last line would be a whisper. It's a brilliant idea, but no Cable ever wants to do that. It's emotionally right, but doesn't deliver the thrill of the tenor singing the big notes at the end.
BL: It must be difficult to do a restoration, given that we all have very set notions of what a show should sound like, based on our personal favorite recordings.
BP: Yes. We tend to get married to a particular recording. Sometimes, it may not even be the best recording of the show. It's hard to go to new production of a classic musical and not compare it to the original cast album. The mind does play tricks.
BL: What do you think about the sound design of LCT's South Pacific, by Scott Lehrer"?
BP: This South Pacific is beautifully miked; you're not aware of miking the way you are in many Broadway shows. The show isn't blasted at you. It sounds more human.
BL: What kind of feedback have you gotten about the music from the audience?
BP: The thing I'm hearing most from audience is that they're experiencing something they've never had the opportunity to hear before. So many recent productions tend to eliminate the underscoring, and the music that surrounds the numbers. There was a tour ten years ago in which the second act of the play was 35 minutes long; they cut a half hour. And people used to cut the military scenes.
BL: Which show was the hardest to restore?
BP: Each one is its own challenge. Carousel was challenge because of a 40-piece orchestration reduced to 20. South Pacific was a challenge because Josh Logan worked a lot on his feet; original material in the notes was scribbled over and changed. You have to peel back the layers.
We tend to think that a classic piece of art steps out of its creators' heads fully formed -- that it emerges in perfection. It doesn't; it's complicated, and things keep changing.
Often in our restorations, we can't come to a single definitive answer about something, because of that conflicting information.
BL: Anything else you'd like to mention?
BP: The work I do at R & H I don't do alone. I have terrific people who work with me, people who love details.
BL: How so?
BP: Every eighth note can launch a discussion.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com
As I sat at a Sat. matinee this past April and looked around,there was a fairly typical older matinee crowd.But, maybe not. I suspect that there are more than a few Vets in the audience, especially of WWII vintage. This thought actually gave me a totally unanticipated emotional surge and heightened my already soaring state from the show itself.Question---are the cast members somewhat aware of just who and how many vets are in all their audiences, esp the older guys&gals? It would help overcome their aches & pains.
I saw the show on 7/26 mat. and loved it. However, in the scene where the packages are delivered from home, I believe that Luther says that someone receives a package from "Euclid Avenue in Shaker Heights, Ohio". Being from there, Euclid Ave. does not run through Shaker Heights. It might be better to substitute Shaker Blvd. or Van Aken Blvd., which are major streets in Shaker Hts. Thank you for a wonderful afternoon.
Thank you for the wonderful interview. I've been in love with this music for decades and hearing it now fully restored is like hearing it for the first time. Thanks for shedding light on this process.