A Houston girl (big hair included) takes on war in South Pacific
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Rogers and Hammerstein's 1948 South Pacific cleaned up with seven 2008 Tony Awards and is still the hottest ticket on Broadway. This week, the production travels to Houston via Theatre Under the Stars with Houston native Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forebush in the leading lady role.
Cusack, a classically trained singer, developed her career in England and hit her stride as Elphaba in Wicked in several national and international tours. Now, she's giving Nellie her own unique spin.
With Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank's miniseries Pacific premiering later this month on HBO (and the United States still currently involved in conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan), South Pacific's major themes still feel timely and relevant. Cusack gets our feet wet in the Pacific.
Q: South Pacific struck an immediate chord with audiences during the Lincoln Center Theater revival. It was almost as if we had never seen the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical before. New York Times columnist Frank Rich had very specific ideas on exactly why this happened. From where you stand as Nellie Forbush, the nucleus of the story, why do you think the piece hit so hard and so deeply?
A: A few things. People were ready for a classical musical, so the timing was perfect. Also, you are right, audiences had never seen the whole of South Pacific. Bartlett Sher, a visionary director, found important details in the play that were not in the orginial 1948 Broadway production. And remember the 1958 film contained even less than that. And then there are the racial issues, which are still part of our world today.
Q: Let's talk about race. Nellie Forbush is the most lovable and level-headed character to appear in a classic musical. She's a Navy nurse and an ideal citizen, yet she has trouble accepting her dashing Frenchman boyfriend's ( Emile de Becque) Polynesian children. There's something incredibly honest about her story.
A: Nellie is a product of her environment and her time. Growing up in Texas I can relate to that.
Q: And then there's the war issue. Part of the genius of the story, is that it's war neutral. It's not pro or anti war, yet we see familiar scenes of life during war years. It's not so far away from today's news.
A: Exactly. Every day, our young people face death in Iraq and Afghanistan. South Pacific reminds us we are at war. There's a beautiful scene at the end when we see the cast marching off into the horizon. I don't want to give away too much, but it's incredibly stunning and moving.
Q: Somehow your Wicked tour did not end up in Houston. Is this the first time your family will see you perform on a Houston stage?
A: Yes and no. It's my first time performing in Houston as an adult. When I was 12, I performed as a boy soldier in a Houston Grand Opera production of Carmen, so technically, that was my Houston professional debut.
Q: What's it like to go from playing Ephaba, a completely imaginary fantastical green witch, to Nellie, a salt of the earth, flesh and blood Southern woman of her time?
A: There is such a different style of singing and even holding myself. It's from a completely different era. I do think my operatic training served me well in approaching the part. I studied with Eugene Talley-Schmidt at Houston Baptist University. Honestly, I did not think I would get the part. I'm not a cute blonde cheerleader type. I thank God Bartlett had the foresight to see me in this role. I had to reach deep into my Texas roots to conjure that Southern belle.
But, I am a Houston girl. I even have big hair!