The current touring production of South Pacific at the Aronoff Center offers a rare treat: an orchestra of 25 musicians. According to the production’s conductor Lawrence Goldberg, “A typical band on the road is 15.” When this revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1949 classic was assembled two years ago at New York City’s Lincoln Center, it used 30 musicians who were visually showcased with a retractable floor that gave audiences a full view of the formally dressed players.
That’s not possible on the road, Goldberg says.
“We have to deal with the physicality of each theater we’re in,” he says. “We make every effort to have the orchestra as visible as possible, but it’s usually very limited.”
Nevertheless, having 25 players is way above the average.
“The production definitely values the large orchestra,” Goldberg says, “and wants to draw attention to it as much as possible.”
Most of the musicians playing at the Aronoff are local. South Pacific tours with only a violinist (who serves as concertmaster), a harpist (who doubles as a rehearsal pianist) and a bassoonist, who is Goldberg’s assistant conductor. The remaining 22 musicians are local professionals: five more violins, two violas, two cellos, a string bass, four more woodwinds, three trumpets, three trombones, two French horns and a drummer-percussionist.
“There are no synthesizers,” Goldberg says, “not even a piano or a guitar.”
[Read my review of South Pacific here.]
Musical numbers in the show that would typically use a keyboard or a guitar were creatively conceived by Robert Russell Bennett, who orchestrated the original South Pacific.
“For ‘Nothin’ Like a Dame,’ the string section actually strums their instruments to create a kind of banjo effect,” Goldberg says.
Of course, Rodgers’ score for South Pacific is lush, often an orchestral reflection of the tropical island setting. Contemporary constraints — mainly financial — have diminished orchestras for most Broadway shows and tours based on them. But South Pacific’s producers were committed to replicating the ravishing musical experience that audiences loved at Lincoln Center.
“There is nothing like it,” Goldberg says. “It’s rare to have that full sound and be able to do the kind of nuances you just can’t get out of a smaller band. Just having a string section of this size — every player brings something to the mix. And yet they come together in a cohesive unit and respond to every little gesture I make. A keyboard would sound totally homogeneous, but this string section sounds alive.”
Audiences can hear the difference, according to Goldberg.
“They know that it’s something special,” he says. “We get a lot of people coming down to the pit rail to look over at intermission or during the exit music at the end of the show.
“The entr’acte is actually a little bit more informal than most,” he adds, describing music played as the second act begins with the jocular Seabees clowning around and urging the audience to clap along. “We start it a bit before the whole audience is seated, with the houselights on, so people can come down and listen. I get a lot of comments from people in the audience about how beautiful it sounds.”
Let’s appreciate this kind of accompaniment when it shows up, because it won’t happen often. South Pacific’s tuneful score played by such an ensemble truly offers “some enchanted evening.”
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]