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Ted Sperling: Driving a 'South Pacific' Rolls-Royce with the top down

Ted Sperling gave me an incredible gift, and I didn't use it. When I was granted unbelievable access, to the first time the cast of Lincoln Center's "South Pacific" heard their 30-piece orchestra, I noticed something. He was conducting the rehearsal with a knitting needle in his hand, not a baton. "I moved last week, and my batons are in boxes," he told me later. "I knit and I always have my knitting needles." For some reason, I didn't put that in this 2008 story. Happy to rectify that, in a way, here.

Conducting a musical can seem like tuning up an automobile with its engine running.

There are so many things for a conductor to evaluate and adjust - tempos, the dynamics of each member of the orchestra, the ever-moving actors, dancers, singers and set pieces -all the while looking at the score, the all-important owner's manual.

If you'll allow the metaphor, Ted Sperling is under the hood of a Rolls-Royce these days as musical director of Lincoln Center's revival of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific." The first Broadway revival opens Thursday.

"South Pacific" opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949, and ran for five years - longer than the war in the South Pacific - winning nine Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

This revival stars Kelli O'Hara as Ensign Nellie Forbush, Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot as French plantation owner Emile de Becque, Matthew Morrison as Lt. Joseph Cable and Loretta Ables Sayre, a Hawaiian nightclub singer making her Broadway debut, as Bloody Mary.

It is a reunion, of sorts, of Lincoln Center's 2005 Tony-winner "The Light in the Piazza."

That, too, was directed by Bartlett Sher, with musical direction by Sperling, and starred O'Hara and Morrison.

"There's a level of trust and an easy back-and-forth that we have at this point," Sperling says. "We can discuss things and no one's back gets up."

As musical director, Sperling - a New Rochelle native whose child-psychiatrist parents still live in the Lyncroft Road house that was his childhood home - oversees 40 actors and an especially large orchestra of 30.

"There was a desire on the part of the estate that we use the original orchestrations," Sperling says.

"The estate" is the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which steadfastly protects the legacy of the team that created "Oklahoma!" "The King & I," "The Sound of Music" and "South Pacific."

Key among the voices to be considered were those of two daughters - Rodgers' daughter, Mary, and Hammerstein's daughter, Alice, who lives in Harrison.

"They've been very generous," Sperling says. "They've asked us to check in with them at certain times along the way. They wanted to be part of the casting of the principal actors. They came to the last auditions for those. Then they left us alone and just came to the final run-through.

"(Mary Rodgers) gave me a few small suggestions on tempo, based on that run-through, all of which I completely understood. I think they've been very respectful."

One of Rodgers' notes was on the song "You've Got to Be Taught," an anthem on how prejudice - a principal theme - is a learned trait, not a natural one.

"She thought I was taking it a little too fast," Sperling says. "That's a tricky number because the character who sings it gets quite worked up before he sings it and he's at a peak emotional state. So the impulse is to sort of hammer it out, which would make it quicker.

"I'm intrigued by trying it slower. I think the orchestra will sound better, you might understand what he's saying a little better and it might give the number a little more of a journey, so it's not just angry from beginning to end," Sperling says.

The estate also provided the original orchestra parts from the first production, complete with the scribblings and notes of the first musicians ever to play Richard Rodgers' score.

But this isn't just a re-creation of the original production.

"Sometimes you can be overly careful in honoring a dead person's wishes when, if they were here, they'd say 'Oh, come on! Change that! You have a different singer! Try this,'" Sperling says. "So we're doing the tiniest little tweaks."

But Sperling had to recreate at least one important aspect of that long-ago show.

"One thing I said at the outset was 'If you want to use the original orchestrations, you're going to have to use the original-size orchestra, which is how we ended up with 30 people," he says. " ... We can't do the original orchestrations with 16 people, which is what Broadway orchestras are these days."

What Sperling gained in the equation was a whole lot of strings.

"It's very rare to have this many strings," he says. "We have eight violins, two violas, three cellos and a bass. The strings usually get cut because people use a synthesizer to augment the sound of the strings. As long as you have four strings, you can give the impression that you have a section."

From what he calls "the best seat in the house," Sperling can look down and see every one of his players in the same pit, another rarity.

"There are shows where you'll have the string sections in a dressing room" linked by a video monitor to their conductor, he says.

"I'm all in favor of showing how music is made and not having it be this invisible pumped-in, piped-in thing you're only hearing from a sound system."

The music in "South Pacific" is front-and-center. Shortly after the six-minute overture begins, as the orchestra plays the mystical strains of "Bali Ha'i," the stage deck recedes to reveal all 30 musicians and their conductor, dressed to the nines.

This Rolls is a convertible.

Under that movable roof, next to the harp, sits cellist Charles du Chateau, the assistant conductor.

"Not many people on Broadway get that experience - to play in a pit this big," he says, calling from a train into the city from his Tuckahoe home on a two-performance Wednesday. "When the stage pulls back, every night, the response is incredible.

"When I'm looking up at Ted, following him, I can't help but also look out and notice people's reactions," he says. "You can see guys who are obviously from the World War II era with their families. And you see everyone in tears at the end of it, and enjoying it."

Having the music so prominent - the orchestra takes a bow after the overture and the stage returns to the "closed" position - is as it should be, says du Chateau, adding with a laugh, "Well, they are called 'musicals.' Sometimes people forget that."

Du Chateau says playing alongside two other cello players has meant adjusting his style, bowing more gently as he doesn't have to make all the sound for the cello section.

When it's his turn to "drive the bus" and conduct, du Chateau says he'll have learned a lot from Sperling.

"He has an old-fashionedness that I find completely charming," he says. "When he's conducting 'Honey Bun,' you look up and he's dancing. In 'I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy,' which is a waltz, he actually kind of waltzes. ... You can't not go with him when he does that."

Sperling grew up near New Rochelle High School, not far from the Thomas Paine Cottage, but attended Horace Mann prep school in Manhattan. He studied piano a block from his home with Sarah Rubinstein who ran "a one-woman music school in her house."

"She had six pianos in her house and she taught morning, noon and night. I remember taking lessons with her at 10 o'clock at night when I was in high school. When I was in elementary school, I would have my lessons at lunch. I would get dropped off by the school bus, she would make me lunch, I'd have my lesson and she would drive me back to school. They gave me permission to come back to school a half-hour late one day a week.

"She encouraged pianists to play with other people. As a pianist, you can often be isolated. You don't play in orchestras, so one of the reasons she had six pianos in her house was that she'd pair two pianists of the same age and the same level and she had a big library of music for two pianos. So you got this experience of playing with someone else."

For Sperling, the charm of "South Pacific" is its simplicity.

"(Lincoln Center artistic director) André Bishop talks about doing this as if we were doing a play and I can see that now," he says. "I think it's how they conceived it originally, too. It's less showbizzy. The acting is at a very real and emotionally true level. The numbers are very much grounded in the situations they arise from. The staging is not full of razzle-dazzle."

Sperling put the orchestra through its paces, but also had 40 actors to get ready.

"Bart has been directing opera and he was all on board finding fantastic singers," Sperling says. "He wasn't going to settle for a wonderful actor who had an OK voice. Everybody had to be both."

O'Hara says the big band isn't overpowering.

"The orchestrations were done back in the day for voices that weren't amplified, so it's such a nurturing sound, a soft blanket of sound instead of anything trying to compete with you," she says. "That makes it a joy to sing to."

O'Hara has sung in front of big orchestras before. When she sang Eliza Doolittle in a concert version of "My Fair Lady" with the New York Philharmonic, the band was 80 or 90 pieces.

"I cannot tell you, as a singer, what that feels like to have the rush of that. Having an orchestra that large is an amazing, gorgeous bit of foundation under you, swelling up under you so you feel so grand," she says, adding that she doesn't have to adjust her voice or compete with the band. It's Sperling's job to strike the right balance.

"It's even more so with this show because they're doing a sound design that's more primitive," O'Hara says. "They're trying to not make it sound like it's amplified. Even though they're helping us just a bit they're trying to balance it so that it actually does sound acoustic.

"You feel much more allowed to sing truly and not blowing it out or singing too softly. You're actually singing at the level that you would feel would be a reasonable level to just communicate. It's all a very natural feeling."

O'Hara is about to move to Putnam County with her husband, Greg Naughton, son of the actor James Naughton. The couple lived in New Rochelle for a year - on Old Post Road - "back behind where Ted grew up,” O'Hara says. "We were trying to figure out if we'd like the commute and we loved it."

Sperling is demanding in rehearsal, says Ables Sayre, who plays Bloody Mary, because "he's handling the most magnificent musical theater score ever written.

"I saw Ted in his bliss, conducting that orchestra," she says. "You could see that music flowing through his body. You saw where his tenderness is. When his eyes are closed when he's conducting, he feels that connection with everyone. Because of that, we trust him completely."

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