South Pacific (First Complete Recording) | Review
Monday, August 7, 2023
Goodbye highlights, hello the real deal with reprises and atmospheric underscoring
Anyone who released an album in the UK in 1958 must have felt resentful. The original movie soundtrack of South Pacific nabbed the number one spot in November 1958 and, astonishingly, stayed there into 1960, breaking records with a total 115-week reign plus 99 weeks in the top five. And, a decade earlier, the Original Cast Recording made history by topping the US album charts for 63 weeks, selling over a million copies.
The company numbers are done with gusto and Pat Suzuki, a Rodgers and Hammerstein veteran, lends Mary both low cunning and welcome restraint
Both recordings are as flawed as they are legendary. The movie suffers from dubbed leads (aside from an ideally perky Mitzi Gaynor) and a glut of Hollywood strings swamping Rodgers and Hammerstein’s splendid score. The OCR has matchless leads, but its under-50-minutes running time means that swathes of the wide-ranging, passionate score are lost.
Which is where, in 1997, JAY Records came in. At almost 108 minutes, their First Complete Recording featured twice as much music. That’s one reason why its return to disc is welcome. Goodbye highlights, hello the real deal with reprises and all the superbly atmospheric underscoring.
The other reason? Robert Russell Bennett. Traditionally overlooked, orchestrators are vital, adding musical characterisation, colour and punch. Bennett had a 30-piece band to play with, including nine brass, and play with them he did to wonderfully lush and illustrative effect. The supreme asset of this new digital remix is having all that detail given real warmth in a spacious acoustic as conductor John Owen Edwards leads the orchestra through Bennett’s beautifully evocative work with lustre and heft.
What this recording doesn’t have is stars. But since that’s what wrecked the famous 1980s recording with the less-than-comic Kiri Te Kanawa and woefully miscast tenor José Carreras, that’s good news.
Here, perky Paige O’Hara is certainly nicely ‘immature and incurably green’, although her Nellie lacks relaxed warmth. As Emile, Justino Diaz sings with richness but, faced with the climactic, epic lament ‘This Nearly Was Mine’, he simply cannot touch the focused passion of the original Ezio Pinza.
The company numbers are done with gusto and Pat Suzuki, a Rodgers and Hammerstein veteran, lends Mary both low cunning and welcome restraint. But although Sean McDermott has the range and experience for Cable, he lacks true ardour in ‘Younger Than Springtime’.
So, this carefully crafted, often nicely boisterous recording is strong enough for anyone wanting the full score. But the true passion driving South Pacific is only glimpsed.
Richard Rodgers music
Oscar Hammerstein II lyrics, book
Joshua Logan book
Cast Justino Diaz, Paige O’Hara, Pat Suzuki, Sean McDermott
Orchestrations Robert Russell Bennett
National Symphony Orchestra / John Owen Edwards