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Tunes He Can Sink His Teeth Into

He knows 'South Pacific' well, but veteran baritone Robert Goulet still finds the music deeply affecting

July 07, 2002|SUSAN KING

There are worse ways to start a morning than having Robert Goulet serenade you over the phone. So here it is, 10 in the morning, and Goulet is crooning the haunting ballad "This Nearly Was Mine," his favorite song from "South Pacific."

Goulet, who has been starring in the national tour of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic since March, brings the show to Los Angeles on Tuesday for a two-week engagement at the Wilshire Theatre.

"As a singer, you can really let go and get involved in the lyrics," Goulet, 68, booms over the phone from Seattle. "So clear and deep are my fancies / Of things I wish were true," he sings in his still-rich baritone. "I'll keep remembering evenings / I wish I had spent with you...."

Though not as well known as such "South Pacific" standards as "Some Enchanted Evening," "A Wonderful Guy," "Happy Talk," "Bali Ha'i" and "Bloody Mary," the song gets to him every performance, Goulet acknowledges. "Every singer likes to sink his teeth into a song like that."

Audiences' response to the tune of love lost has been enthusiastic. "People are whistling and yelling and cheering. I never heard that before," he says. "It's wonderful but it's also embarrassing. I am supposed to be in a lot of pain, but I can't even bow to the audience."

This current tour of "South Pacific" is just one of the many events this year celebrating what would have been Rodgers' 100th birthday. Winner of nine Tony Awards in 1950, "South Pacific" is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories by James Michener, "Tales of the South Pacific."

Set on a picturesque Pacific island during World War II, the musical explores prejudice through two love stories. Goulet plays the effervescent Emile de Becque, a handsome French widower who falls in love with a much younger and naive American nurse, Nellie (Amanda Watkins). Although the two want to marry, Nellie, who is from Arkansas, calls off the engagement after she discovers Emile was married to a Polynesian woman and has two children by her.

This production's director, Scott Faris, says that despite initial fears, Goulet was easy to work with. "He never for a minute said, 'I did it this way before,' " Faris says. "He would just take direction, and if he questioned something, like with any actor, if I explained it to him why I wanted him to do it, he'd say, 'OK.' "

Watkins had not previously met Goulet but acknowledges she too was a bit worried about working with him. "You always assume people like that might be a little tricky because he has been around for years and years," she says. "I am sort of a new kid on the block, comparatively speaking, as is Scott. But he has been a dream. He was fun in rehearsal, and he still is to this day."

In fact, says Watkins, instead of being a prima don, Goulet is "such a normal guy. He's inventive. He does new things on stage all the time, which I appreciate. He's such a rock. He never missed the show. He's never out."

Goulet's first encounter with "South Pacific" was in 1955, when he played the secondary male lead, Lt. Cable, in a summer stock production in Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada. "I said at the time, 'One day I am going to play the old man's part.' And I did."

He first played Emile in a 1988 tour of the musical and says that over the years, his interpretation of the character hasn't changed. "I try to play him as authentically as I can," he says. "I play him with a bit of a French accent. There's not much leeway with the character, I don't think. First of all, he's crazy about this nurse and is a little nervous being with her. But when she says she loves him, it's 'whoa, whoa. Get out of the way.' "

Goulet's Emile loves life and has a bountiful sense of good humor. In fact, says Watkins, both spotlight their characters' lighter sides. "We're very playful," she says. "That is why we make it work, because there is a pretty intense age difference, and from the very beginning we have been so goofy with each other."

Rodgers' daughter, composer-writer Mary Rodgers, saw the production in New Haven, Conn., and had a few words of advice for Goulet. "She said some of those notes, you are holding a little too long," Goulet recalls. "I said, 'Beg your pardon. Isn't that something like artistic interpretation?' She said, 'Yes, but what about my father's artistic interpretation when he wrote the notes? He didn't say hang on to these notes for, like, 30 seconds.' "

So Goulet thought about what she told him. "She was right. I was holding the notes too long at the end of 'Some Enchanted Evening.' " But he didn't change anything with a short song he sings before "This Nearly Was Mine," where he holds a note for dramatic effect. "I don't know if she wants me to cut that one," he says, "but I won't."

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