What's it like to see your first live Broadway musical when you're 40 years old, have only been in New York for 16 hours, and have only been out of your native country - Papua New Guinea - twice in your life? These are some of the questions I asked Mari Malike earlier this week, at a Starbucks near Lincoln Center, after an evening performance of South Pacific.
Malike, who was in New York for three days en route to London, is no stranger to the world of Rodgers & Hammerstein. "I grew up about two hours outside of Madang, on the north coast of New Guinea. The country's official languages are Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin, and English. But no one in my family spoke English, and I was taken out of school in the 6th grade, so I had to teach myself. The only materials available to me were a grammar book from the 1940s, a copy of some Shakespeare plays, and a cassette recording of the movie of The Sound of Music."
Malike, who is tall and striking, and who as we spoke seemed to develop an immediate taste for frappucinos, said she was glad that the story of the von Trapp family had been one of her primers. "It was so far removed from my life that it had a kind of exoticism, maybe in somewhat the same way thatSouth Pacific seemed exotic to Americans in 1949. But my family did think it a little strange to see their 11-year-old daughter skipping around our farm singing "Doe, a deer, a female deer."
At night, there was no electricity on Malike's family's farm, and candles were sometimes scarce. "That's why music was so important to me as a child. I wasn't always able to read at night, but I could listen to The Sound of Music. Hammerstein's lyrics became my poetry."
So what did she think of South Pacific? "To be honest, I was hoping that my first in-person musical would be The Sound of Music. And I am going to be seeing it in London next week. But I am not sorry to have 'lost my virginity' with the Seabees. I had heard stories from my grandfather about the war: about the Japanese, who invaded Madang in 1942, and about the Australians, who recaptured the town two years later."
Did she know much about the American military and their customs? "Not really," she said. "I was surprised not to see more gum being chewed in South Pacific. There's talk of Bloody Mary chewing betel nuts, but not much about gum. People talk now about how American GIs spread the habit of chewing gum throughout the world during the war, but of course people around the world had been chewing all kinds of things long before the Americans arrived!"
Why had it taken Malike so long to see her first musical? "Well, I have four children, and I spent almost twenty years, in a village not far from my home village, taking care of them. There was no money for travel. Then, about six months ago, to celebrate my 40th birthday, my children took up a collection to send me to New York and London, to see musicals. You see, I had never lost my love for them, and they knew that. When they gave me the gift, I was so overwhelmed that I started crying, and I haven't stopped crying since. I read your interview with Bloody Mary [Loretta Ables Sayre], where she said that after she got the part she cried all through dinner. That's nothing. I have been crying for six months, ever since my birthday!"
Did Malike have a favorite moment in South Pacific? "Maybe one thing: At the beginning, when the orchestra starts to play. All my life, I've been listening to recordings of musicals and watching the movies, rather than seeing them live. So somehow I imagined that the music just floated in on the air for the characters to sing to, like Maria gliding through the Alps. Seeing a conductor was sort of a shock. I hope I'm a little more used to it when I get to London and the von Trapp family."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com