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ABC's 'South Pacific' stays true to spirit of the original musical

The producers of ABC's new television movie version of "South Pacific," as well as the heirs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, had two goals in mind — first, to make an entertaining telefilm that's true to the spirit of the original stage musical. And, second, to do a better job of adapting it than the 1958 theatrical film.

"I think one of the reasons I'm sitting here today is that, that film is acknowledged in some ways a failure by the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate," said Richard Pearce, who directed the ABC movie (Monday, 7 p.m., Ch. 4). "And the challenge was to . . . really look at what it is to take an icon of American musical theater and actually make a movie of it."

This time, Glenn Close stars as optimistic Ensign Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse stationed on a remote island during World War II. She falls in love with plantation-owner Emile de Becque (Rade Sherbedgia) — a man with a past.

Harry Connick Jr. also stars as Marine Lt. Joseph Cable, a hero who falls in love with a native girl (Natalie Mendoza). And the cast includes Robert Pastorelli ("Murphy Brown") as Seabee Luther Billis and Lori Tan Chinn as Liat's mother, Bloody Mary.

"Our vision for our version was to cast the best actors we could find who happened to be able to sing," said Close, who was also an executive producer. "What's so exciting about a piece like this is the greatness of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics. . . . We wanted to have actors who could, I think for the first time, reveal what their material really holds."

And the narrative is spiced by such classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs as "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Ha'i," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "Younger Than Springtime" — but it's decidedly different than the 1958 movie.

"I think the overall approach to this material was not simply to film 'South Pacific' the way that it was done in 1958, which was very much a transplanted stage production set on a beach," said executive producer Lawrence Cohen. "And every number and the book itself was re-explored. (The TV movie) went back far more to the (James) Michener (book) in terms of the writing and the spirit and the truth of the material."

It's no secret that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II themselves weren't particularly happy with the 1958 film. But their heirs seem all but ecstatic about the remake. Rodgers' daughter, Mary, issued a statement saying she was "overwhelmed" by the new movie and that it is "the best-acted 'South Pacific' I have ever seen."

The biggest difference between new and old might be that the remake is a coherent, often compelling narrative, which features musical numbers; the original was more a collection of musical numbers with a story wrapped around them.

"In going back and re-reading the Michener (book) that 'South Pacific' was based on, we felt that the stories and the writing spirit of this material was so strong that if it did not have the songs of 'South Pacific,' it would have made a great miniseries," said executive producer Michael Gore "We actually came to ABC with that notion that the music was actually the icing on the cake."

"If you know 'South Pacific,' it will, hopefully, appear very similar, but deeper and rearranged in some critical ways that add dramatically," said Cohen, who wrote the teleplay.

Perhaps the most obvious difference, however, comes in the casting. As portrayed by Mary Martin on the stage and Mitzi Gaynor in the 1958 movie, Nellie Forbush was a twentysomething woman. (Although Martin was 35 when she originated the role on Broadway in 1949.)

This time around, Nellie is a more mature woman in the person of Close, who turned 54 on Monday (although the character's age is never discussed).

Gore was on the mark when he said that Close embodied "the spirit of Nellie Forbush and the optimism of the character that applied." Once fans of the original movie get over the difference, they should appreciate Close's fine performance and outstanding voice.

"The first time I heard her sing one of the songs . . . Larry and I just looked at each other and went, 'That voice! It is the spirit of Mary Martin in Glenn Close,' " Gore said. "It's an incredible, incredible instrument. I think one of the great surprises for many people will be what an incredible job Glenn does of singing this."

Mary Rodgers opined that Close is "nothing short of a marvel" in the role. "You are Nellie Forbush — period."

" 'South Pacific' was my first musical memory," Close said. "When I was 3 years old, I can remember looking up at what was then a record player and hearing Mary Martin sing, 'I'm Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.' I've loved it my entire life. I don't have a very long list of roles that I want to play before I don't act anymore, and this was one of my dreams. And so, when Michael and Larry came to me with a proposition I, without hesitation, said yes."

The new "South Pacific" was filmed on location in Australia and Tahiti, and the cinematography is gorgeous. Oddly enough, this one feels more like an expansive movie that did the often claustrophobic original. The musical numbers are staged to take advantage of the locations — and they're spaced throughout the three-hour time slot.

No new songs were added and only one, "Happy Talk," was deleted, largely (but not entirely) because of time constraints.

"We had to look very seriously at the two hour-and-15 minute format," Gore said. "I think had we included everything, we probably would have been up to about 2 1/2 hours, 2 hours and 40 minutes. It was the one song that we actually felt did not propel the action of the piece. It was actually sort of an entertainment-value song. So even though we loved it, it was the only one that was not used in the piece."

And the deletion doesn't in any way hurt this movie — a movie that is, quite simply, a delight.

"We felt very deeply that this is one of the greatest American musicals in existence," said Close, "and we worked with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates all along the way, so that they felt this is something they could be 1,000 percent behind."