Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008-2009

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Overture to a Revival

Overture to a Revival
Theater-goers leaving the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center after a matinee performance of “South Pacific” in October meet Ted Chapin ´72.

An Alumnus talks about his life in musical theater

By David A. Brensilver


When the lights go down in Lincoln Center´s Beaumont Theater, you can hear the sold-out audience gasp with delight as the stage rolls back to reveal a full orchestra and the swelling sounds of the overture to “South Pacific.” For that thrilling moment, and the return of this great American musical to Broadway for the first time since the original show closed more than half a century ago, they can thank Connecticut College Trustee Ted Chapin ´72 P´07. One of the prime movers in this effort, Chapin is president and executive director of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization as well as chairman of the board of the American Theatre Wing. Sitting in the Lincoln Center Theater, Chapin talked about “South Pacific,” why working as a production assistant on “Follies” during his junior year in college changed his life and more.

Q: In 1971, when you were a junior at Connecticut College, you worked as a production assistant on Stephen Sondheim´s “Follies.” What was that period of time like?

A: I grew up in New York and loved the theater. And my father was involved in various jobs in the theater. I had seen “Company” the year before, and it was an amazing show. It was very modern, something I hadn´t expected from the musical theater. I mean, there was “Hair,” but there was also “Hello, Dolly!” So this was something completely new, and I wanted to be part of this world. I figured out that “Follies” was going to go into rehearsal that year, so I was able to say to Connecticut College, “If I observe this extraordinarily interesting new American musical, I could keep a journal and get course credit for it.” The show was over budget and the staff was very lean. There was clearly a need for a production assistant. I went home every night and typed up what I had seen. When I published the book (Everything Was Possible: The Birth of The Musical ´Follies,´ in 2003) based on my journal, there is a little apologia in the front about my not wanting to be a voyeur. I just felt a little bit like I wanted to say, “I don´t want anyone to think I was doing something untoward.” But ultimately, what I watched was so interesting that I took the risk.

Q: What do you think now of your experience at the College and the freedom you were given in 1971?

A: My time at Connecticut College was a transition from my academic life to my professional life. I was able to go to the National Theater Institute that first semester and later had the “Follies” experience. When I came back in my senior year I directed a musical at the College, “Once Upon a Mattress.” No one had ever done that before as a student. The theater club at that time was very insular, and so I thought, let´s do something that involves the music department and as many people as we can, just to give the theater notion at the College as much of a kick in the butt as we could. I just came across a letter the other day from someone who was in that production and talked about how important it was to her and to the whole community. So I´ve always had a great affection for the College. I feel it was an important time in my life that involved a lot more than just being in New London, being on campus.

Q: The “South Pacific” revival has won seven Tonys. You´ve talked about the timing of it before, and the fact that the timing would be tricky because of a) the post-war context, and b) the subtext or the theme of racial prejudice. Given those concerns, is it serendipity?

A: This production of “South Pacific” was really many serendipitous moments. Because a revival of “South Pacific” has always had, as you point out, these two perceived problems, it actually hasn´t been done on Broadway since the original production, although it has been done in New York. Over the years would-be producers suggested either putting it in a context that would bring a modern audience back to the World War II era or making changes that would soften or refocus the theme. Then Andre Bishop, artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater, called me and said, “I just want to remind you how much I love ´South Pacific.´ And if I were to do it, I would put the team that did ´The Light in the Piazza´ on it.” And because “The Light in the Piazza” was written by Adam Guettel, who´s Richard Rodgers´ grandson, and therefore part of our group of living authors we represent, I thought, “You know what? That´s the best idea anybody has had.”

Q: That brings me to another point. You´ve been a staunch defender of trying to keep the orchestra pits full, whereas the trend of late has been to downsize, for lack of a better word, and pipe in music from other rooms. How did “South Pacific” get lucky in that respect?

A: Even before I had the conversation with Andre Bishop, I heard rumors that they were going to use the original-sized orchestra. I thought, could this be true? When Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were on Broadway it was routine to have orchestras of 28 to 30 people. But today, when you have a show with this kind of music, they want 16 to 17, and as you say, many of the orchestra pits have been covered over and moved down under the stage to get a row of very high-priced seats. Sometimes there isn´t even room for the orchestra there. When Andre said “full orchestra,” and then explained the idea of revealing the entire orchestra for the overture, it was just a magnificent moment.

Q: One of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization´s productions, “Irving Berlin´s White Christmas,” is coming to Broadway over the holidays. What should audiences expect from that experience?

A: Audiences who know and love the movie “White Christmas” will see the essence of that movie, but adapted to a stage musical that has its own life. A lot of the songs are different, but the basic story is the same. Interestingly, there´s less Christmas in “White Christmas” than there is in the musical “Annie.” It just happens to be in the title. And so that is interesting. People perceive it as a holiday musical. If you don´t necessarily want to see “The Nutcracker,” or you don´t want to go to the Christmas show again, this is a musical that behaves like a musical that happens to have resonance at Christmastime.

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