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Gina Beck on 'South Pacific' and why Rodgers and Hammerstein were musical geniuses

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Even though Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific was first staged in the West End over 70 years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical found itself with renewed buzz last year. South Pacific wowed audiences at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2021, and now the highly acclaimed production heads to London’s Sadler's Wells for a summer season.

Many of the lead cast members return for the London run: Julian Ovenden as Emile de Becque, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Joseph Cable, Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary, and Sera Maehara as Liat.

Gina Beck also reprises her role in the London South Pacific run as Ensign Nellie Forbush. The Matilda and Wicked star appreciates how innovative Rodgers and Hammerstein were, so to now be starring in one of their musicals means the world to her.

“Rodgers and Hammerstein were incredibly forward-thinking,” commented Beck. “They put on these musicals that shocked people at the time [and they tried to challenge views.]”

This South Pacific doesn't shy away from taking on tough topics: issues of race, relationships and identity are put front and centre. This gritty production honours the original text while putting a 21st-century spin on the characters. We spoke to Beck about revisiting a production for a second season, as well as tackling difficult themes through musical theatre, and bringing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stories to life.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells.

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You starred in South Pacific in Chichester last year. What does it mean to perform the show again in London?

Oh, it’s amazing. We had such a great time last year, but it was tricky with all the COVID measures. It’s a great thing to come back and things be a little bit more relaxed, obviously. We’re not just putting on the same production exactly as we did it. We are revisiting it, and re-rehearsing it. We’re going deeper, finding more things that we didn't discover last time.

What goes into revisiting a production that was staged not that long ago, and then changing and adapting things now?

Well, firstly, we're having to change it to a proscenium arch format, because previously it was a thrust stage [a stage where you perform to three sides]. Back then, we had to really make sure that all the sides can see you at different points, so the staging was interesting.

Now we’re front on, we can just relax a bit more and not have to think the whole time about people behind you being able to see, and make it feel more formal.

But also, we've been looking at the text again. We've been sat in a room with the scripts with [director] Daniel [Evans] just going through this and remembering what we talked about last year. It’s been really great to have that time.

South Pacific first opened nearly 70 years ago. Why do you think that we should revisit it in 2022?

Well, I mean, the book is incredible. And Rodgers and Hammerstein were incredibly forward-thinking. They put on these musicals that shocked people at the time. They were obviously very anti-racist, and for people to say “Oh, South Pacific was that racist musical”, they completely missed the whole point that they were trying to put a mirror up and say “This is what people are like, and this is the kind of view that we need to challenge.”

Obviously, Daniel has worked incredibly hard with the Asian members of our cast and with our Asian-American choreographer [Ann Yee] to make the Asian characters and those who live on the island more fully formed and more 3D.

Liat is typically a young girl [who] says like three words in the whole show. In our version, she expresses herself through dance, so she has a voice. She's not just some little girl who says nothing. They are a character and they are a person.

My character Nellie, she reveals herself to have this terrible secret, this upbringing that she's had in America that's led her to have certain views. They fall in love with her and then it's suddenly revealed that she has this ideology. And the audience has to be challenged by that, as they've invested in this character during the first act.

Has any of the original storyline been altered or is it true to exactly how it was first written?

It’s as exactly how it was written, but we've taken a license with the song “Happy Talk”. In the original version, it has a kind of upbeat, happy tone. In our version, it’s extremely dark. It's like a grief-stricken cry of a mother who wants a better life for her daughter.

Joanna [Ampil] who plays Bloody Mary delivers it like a harvest. She's the smartest person on the island. She's made money off the GIs, off the Marines, and off the sailors. She wants a better life for her daughter and she wants to get off the island. And she does everything she can to do that. Yeah, it's a really interesting character, especially in our version.

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What are your favourite parts about playing Nellie?

She’s an absolutely brilliant character. The funniest bit for me is the sort of turnaround in Act One. She sings “I'm Gonna Wash That Man [Right Outta My Hair]”, and then, literally five minutes later, she's all wonderful. It’s sort of an insight into her quirkiness: she has her heart on her sleeve. And people do that the whole time!

I get to sing opposite Julian [Ovenden], and that's obviously really hard work (laughs). I've admired his career from afar for a long time. So it's amazing to get to hear him sing in close quarters.

It’s been great that a lot of the principal characters have stayed the same, so we've got a shorthand from last year. It bought us a bit more time to reinvestigate, but essentially a lot of the work was done last year.

After South Pacific in Chichester, the original movie musical was available to stream. But now it’s back on stage, what’s the benefits of seeing this live production?

You don't buy into the characters as much as if you don't see them in real life, on the stage. You don't get to feel the heat of the choreography and you don't get that thrill when people are just dancing full out in your face and somebody's singing like a top C. Obviously the singing is great on a screen, but it's just sort of film singing. Here, you're hearing some of the best voices and musical theatre singing.

You get caught up in the story too. Our attention spans are quite short — like when you're watching something at home on the TV, you can go out to get a cup of tea and come back, you’re not right in it. Whereas in the theatre, you’re on the edge of your seat. In the second act, everybody goes off to war. It’s very filmic the way that we set it, and it’s much better to be in the room.

When you played Nellie in Chichester, you role-shared with Alex Young before you went on maternity leave. What changes are you finding happen in the West End?

It was done when I was 26 and in The Phantom of the Opera - we role-shared Christine. That was just the thing that everyone did. Nobody batted an eyelid, but the idea that that it can be transposed to other shows is just awesome. Luckily, now, people who are carers or carrying responsibilities and would like to have more flexible working can actually have that conversation. Even if it comes to nothing, it's something. Whereas in the past, we probably would have been laughted at.

When I first started, people could still smoke! Obviously, we're all a bit more [into] healthy living now, which is very helpful for singers. The shows are more diverse too, which is excellent. When I was in Les Mis, the whole cast was white, and I can’t imagine that would possibly happen now.

What can audiences expect from South Pacific in London this summer?

Oh my gosh, please come and see this musical! If you've never seen a musical that Daniel Evans has directed, then you're missing out because he is fantastic.

He’s also one of the best directors of Rodgers and Hammerstein and of old musical revivals, because he is able to breathe fresh life into every single moment. I mean, I did Showboat [a Hammerstein and Kern musical], and [Evans] managed to make that into this exuberant, joyful but also deeply troubling musical for our generation. He brings these old stories back to life. Plus you get to hear all the songs that you love and heard your parents playing!

You recently starred in a Rodgers and Hammerstein concert too. What does being in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical like South Pacific mean to you?

There’s just unbelievably good songs. The South Pacific album stayed at number one in the charts for four years! Everybody from that era who's still alive probably has that record.

And then you start looking at the script, you just realise that they were absolute geniuses. Nothing is too much. It's so well thought out - every word, every lyric. South Pacific is just precisely made to be perfect.

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Photo credit: Gina Beck and Julian Ovenden in South Pacific (Photos by Johan Persson)

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