Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC opens on Broadway 68 years ago today

Sixty-eight years ago today, a fictional Little Rock heroine took the stage of a Broadway megahit when South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949. It settled in for a run of 1925 performances. Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation. It is also the only Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner to be based on Pulitzer Prize winning source material. This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.) At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards (sometimes listed as eight because Book and Score were not broken separate from Best Musical that year—but some sources incorrectly separate them.) It was named Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan). This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit.

Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting. Martin would reunite with Hayward, Rodgers & Hammerstein ten years later for The Sound of Music. Pinza and Tabbert reunited in 1954 for Fanny which would be the final Broadway credit for each gentleman. McCormick stayed with the show the entire run, except for vacations.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacificand Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 2008, Lincoln Center Theatre produced the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway. It opened on April 3, just four days shy of the musical’s 59th anniversary.  The cast was led by Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara (as Little Rock girl Nellie Forbush), Matthew Morrison (before “Glee”), Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.  The production restored a song which had been written for the original Broadway production that had been dropped. “My Girl Back Home” was featured in the movie version and in this Broadway revival. In it O’Hara and Morrison sang of their hometowns of Little Rock and Philadelphia.  The production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 7: Best Musical Revival, Actor in a Musical (Szot), Director of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Lighting Design (Donald Holder) and Sound Design (Scott Lehrer).


TARTAN DAY Little Rock Look Back: BRIGADOON comes to Robinson

April 6 is Tartan Day – a chance to pay tribute to the achievements of Scots in the U.S.  It is also a good chance to wear plaid.

On January 17 and 18, 1951, the Broadway musical Brigadoon materialized at Robinson Memorial Auditorium for its first visit to Little Rock.  This musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is a Scottish fantasy about a town that materializes for one day every 100 years.

First performed on Broadway in 1947, it was revived at New York City Center in 1950. It was that production that toured in 1951 to Little Rock.  The production was produced by John Yorke (who had worked on the original Broadway production) and brought to Little Rock by Metropolitan Attractions.

The cast was led by future Tony nominee Susan Johnson.  Others in the cast were Elizabeth Early, Robert Busch, Betty Logue and Thaddeus Clancy. All had appeared at City Center, though some in different roles than on the tour.  This touring production featured the original Broadway creative team from 1947 with direction by Robert Lewis, choreography by Agnes de Mille (who won a Tony for it, at the first ceremony), scenery by future Tony winner Oliver Smith, costumes by Tony winner David Ffolkes, lighting by Peggy Clark, and orchestrations by Ted Royal.

Over the years, Brigadoon has resurfaced in Little Rock in community theatre and school productions.  But this was the first time that tartans of the MacLaren, Dalrymple, Brockie and Anderson clans first appeared in Little Rock.


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Four other musicals join THE LION KING in 2017-2018 Celebrity Attractions lineup

lion-king-ca-logoIn 2016, it was announced that Celebrity Attractions would bring The Lion King to Little Rock’s Robinson Center Performance Hall during the 2017-2018 season.

Now the dates for that show have been announced, as have the names and dates for four other musicals.

The Lion King, winner of the 1998 Tony Award for Best Musical, will play in Little Rock from April 18 through May 6, 2018.

The season will kick off with Kinky Boots, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical (playing October 13-15, 2017).  The 1987 Tony winning Best Musical Les Miserables returns to Little Rock from November 29 through December 3, 2017.

The stage version of Dirty Dancing will not be put in a corner, but it will be put on Robinson’s stage from March 16 to 18, 2018.  The season will conclude with Tony winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.  It will play from May 29 through June 3, 2018.

The remaining shows of the 2016-2017 are The Phantom of the OperaRiverdance, and Motown-The Musical.  Phantom, the 1988 Tony winner for Best Musical, plays March 8 through 19.  Riverdance‘s 20th anniversary tour plays in Little Rock from April 14 through 16.  Motown will rock Little Rock from June 21 through 25.


Black History Month – Maya Angelou and Robinson Center

1414mayaOn February 23, 1998, Maya Angelou appeared with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in a concert at Robinson Center.  The evening featured Dr. Angelou narrating Joseph Schwantner’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “New Morning for the World.”

Dr. Angelou, a former resident of Stamps, Arkansas, was not a stranger to Little Rock. She had appeared before at Wildwood Park and would later appear at the Clinton Presidential Center.

A former Poet Laureate of the United States and Tony nominated actor, she won a Grammy Award for her reading of “On the Pulse of the Morning” which had been written for the first inauguration of Bill Clinton as President of the United States.

A poet, author, educator, dancer, singer, actor, and activist, she wrote seven autobiographies. The most notable was arguably I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Born in St. Louis, she spent part of her childhood in Arkansas before moving to California.  She led a peripatetic life both geographically and career-wise ending as a professor at Wake Forest and residing in North Carolina.  It was there that she died in May 2014.


Black History Month – PORGY & BESS at Robinson Auditorium

porgy-bess-robinsonOn December 6, 1943, one of the great love stories of the 20th Century came to Robinson Auditorium.  Cheryl Crawford’s Broadway revival of PORGY & BESS was presented for one performance.

The show was on a national tour after having played Broadway in 1942 and 1943.  The cast included Todd Duncan, who had originated the role of Porgy in 1935 and Etta Moten, for whom George and Ira Gershwin had originally written the part of Bess.  Avon Long played Sportin’ Life (as he would for much of his long career).  The Eva Jessye Choir was the chorus, as they had been for the original 1935 Broadway debut and were in the 1942 and 1943 Broadway revivals.

Conductor Alexander Smallens had been associated with the title since its 1935 debut. The design team of Herbert Andrews (settings) and Paul Du Pont (costumes) had been brought to the project in 1942 by producer Crawford.

This production of Porgy & Bess eliminated some of the singing and changed most of the recitatives to spoken dialogue. It made it less like an opera and more like conventional musical theatre.  While it may not have been true to George Gershwin’s original intent, it was financially more successful than the original production.  In fact, the Crawford version played Broadway in 1942, 1943, and 1944, with national tours after each of the stops on the Rialto.

In 1942, the cast of the revival had performed a one hour version on radio. This was recorded and released, making it one of the first original cast recordings of a Broadway production.

Based on the play by DuBose and Dorthy Heyward,  George Gershwin envisioned Porgy & Bess as an American opera. It had a libretto by DuBose Heyward, who also supplied lyrics along with George’s brother Ira.  While the original production seemed to have slightly confounded critics and audiences who were expecting something more along the lines of the breezy Gershwin shows of the 1920s and early 1930s, it has proven to be a durable title.  It fell out of favor in the 1960s and early 1970s as the Civil Rights movement was causing people to rethink the depictions of African Americans.  In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera staged a new production which restored most of Gershwin’s score and returned it squarely into the realm of opera.  This production played Broadway in 1976 (and won the 1977 Tony for Best Revival) and was revived in 1983 on Broadway.

The most recent notable production of Porgy & Bess originated at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre in 2011.  It officially opened on Broadway in January 2012 (where Little Rock native Will Trice was one of the producers).  In addition to winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, it captured a Tony for Audra McDonald’s performance of Bess (Miss McDonald’s fifth Tony).


Black History Month – James Earl Jones and Robinson Center

james_earl_jones_headshotActor James Earl Jones has made several appearances in Central Arkansas over the years.  He has appeared at Robinson Center with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  On February 12, 1999, he narrated Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and Alexander Miller’s “Let Freedom Ring” with the Symphony in a concert at Robinson Center.  (It was the 190th birthday for Lincoln.)

Born in Mississippi, he spent most of his childhood in Michigan.  After service in the Army during the Korean War, he moved to New York to study theatre.  In the late 1950s he started alternating between Broadway (where he often played a servant) and Off Broadway (where he played leading roles).  His first film appearance was in Dr. Strangelove….  From the 1960s onward he has alternated between stage, film and TV.  In the 1980s, he added voice work to his repertoire.

In 1969 and in 1987, he won Tony Awards for Actor in a Play (The Great White Hope and Fences, respectively).  His other Tony nominations have been for revivals of On Golden Pond and The Best Man.  He was nominated for an Oscar in 1970 for reprising The Great White Hope on film.  He received two Emmy Awards in 1991 – the only actor to ever win two in the same year.

In 2008, he won the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2011 he was given an Honorary Oscar.  In 2002, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

He is probably best loved for his work as the voice of Darth Vader in many of the Star Wars films as well as his voicework in The Lion King.


Happy Birthday to PHANTOM – 6 weeks until it arrives in Little Rock

The-Phantom-of-the-Opera-North-American-Tour (1)29 years ago today, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA opened on Broadway.  It is still going strong at the Majestic Theatre.

Of course, Little Rock theatregoers will not have to wait much longer to see PHANTOM at the new Robinson Center Performance Hall.  It will be here from March 8-19. Producer Cameron Mackintosh’s spectacular new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenal musical success, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, will come to Little Rock as part of a brand new North American Tour.

The production will be the largest musical to play in the building ever.  It will eclipse Beauty and the Beast and Wicked, which both have played at Robinson twice.

The musical, based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book & lyrics by Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe and Mr. Lloyd Webber.  The production was produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Harold Prince.

After opening in London in 1986, The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway in January 1988. It is still running over 27 years later. Phantom is the longest running show in Broadway history.  Nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 1988, it won seven: Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Michael Crawford), Featured Actress in a Musical (Judy Kaye), Director of a Musical (Harold Prince), Scenic Design (Maria Bjornson), Costume Design (Bjornson) and Lighting Design (Andrew Bridge).

Hailed by critics as “bigger and better than ever before,” this production boasts many exciting special effects including the show’s legendary chandelier, new scenic and lighting designs, new staging and choreography. The beloved story and thrilling score will be performed by a cast and orchestra of 52, making this PHANTOM one of the largest productions now on tour.

Celebrity Attractions is bringing PHANTOM to Little Rock.  Ticket information can be found here.