Both men have used the run of "South Pacific" to develop their skills. Emile sings less than 15 minutes the entire evening and barely shares any song time with his leading lady. (Apparently Mary Martin, the original Nellie, didn't want to compete with the vocal prowess of costar Ezio Pinza.) The love story exists primarily in the dialogue — something new for these opera veterans.
Pittsinger relishes the creative freedom of being in theater. "Opera singers come in knowing the music cold. In theater you find it. In opera there is no time of your own. You always have to consider a 60-piece orchestra. With dialogue in theater, you can change punctuation, try a slightly different interpretation. It's like composing your own music."
Gilfry couldn't agree more. "What we don't get to do in opera is constant onstage practice. That's the beauty of eight shows a week. It's a beautiful way to improve on your performance."
"South Pacific" runs at the Ahmanson until July 17. For Sher, the Obama era is the perfect moment for this revival. When it premiered in 1949, he says, "South Pacific" contained "all the information about the future of America. When Nellie chooses to take care of Emile's children, she's making a new kind of family. That's who we are now in this country."
He says the show's real story is about our ability to transform. "Getting 'Bali Ha'i' is not a tropical thing. It's about experiencing something so different than yourself that it changes you completely," Sher said. "That happened to these young men and women who came to the South Pacific. Or the opera singer who enters the world of musical theater. It's about getting opened up."