Originally programmed for 2020, the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical South Pacific eventually opened in person in July 2021, and was also briefly available to stream online last year. Now, once again directed by Daniel Evans and choreographed by Ann Yee and reworked to make it possible to tour, South Pacific is back on stage! Currently in residence at Sadler’s Wells until the end of August, the production will then tour around the UK and Ireland until November.
This production opens with Liat enjoying the tranquillity of her island in the South Pacific, before her peace is disturbed by the raucous arrival of the US troops. At the same time, US Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and French plantation owner Emile de Becque are meeting for the first time. The play follows Nellie and Emile as they balance their personal lives with the demands of the Second World War, fall in love and discover one another’s secrets, and struggle to overcome their differences. We also see the fate of Liat, whose mother, Mary, engineers a meeting between her and the handsome young Lieutenant Joseph Cable on the mysterious island of Bali Ha’i.
South Pacific is a classic musical of the golden age: full of beautiful melodies, insightful and clever lyrics, and stunning choreography. However, in South Pacific, Rogers and Hammerstein sought not only to entertain the audience with stories of love and conflict, they also chose to openly address the issue of racism. Their message remains vitally important for us today.
Sera Maehara has been a member of CFT’s South Pacific company since the start, and has rejoined the production in London and on tour. Born and raised in Japan, she grew up dancing and performing. She moved to London in 2019, and South Pacific is her second engagement at Sadler’s Wells. Here she talks to Jo Tillotson about touring, being a dancer in a theatre company, and tackling the difficulties in telling the story of South Pacific.
Before we talk about South Pacific, let’s start with some questions to help us get to know you a little better.
As a dancer what was your gateway theatre experience? And was that the same experience that made you fall in love with theatre?
As a dancer, my first theatre performance was with my ballet school. I started ballet training when I was 6 years old, but I found classical ballet was not really my favourite style. I fell in love with theatre when I went to the US for the summer when I was 20. I learned about contemporary dance history and met different kinds of people from all around the world. Dance and theatre are about support and freedom. I just found it beautiful.
What is your favourite thing about your job? And has that changed since the COVID-19 pandemic?
I love performing and expressing myself on stage, especially with the wonderful lighting. I think I came to appreciate that even more after the pandemic, as that kind of opportunity was very limited during that time.
What is your favourite theatre-related memory?
My favourite memory would be when I performed in the professional dance company for the first time. During the rehearsal, I had to work hard to catch up with everyone. It was not an easy process. But being up on that stage like I had always dreamed about, I remember feeling that I had made it. It was satisfying.
Which city are you most looking forward to visiting on this tour?
I’m looking forward to every city but I’m excited about Dublin. I haven’t visited Ireland yet, so I can’t wait to enjoy some local food and drinks!
And what is the one thing you never leave home without when you go on tour?
My massage balls. My muscles get tight very easily. They are my best friends!
What is the one question you wish people would ask you in an interview and never do? And what is the answer!
What is your favourite mid show snack? Mine is mini tomatoes and chocolate!
I am a big fan of the golden age musicals, both on stage and on film. South Pacific was the very first in-person show that I saw after the lockdown, and I thought it was a beautiful production. I am so glad that more people will get to see it as it tours around the UK and Ireland.
However, there is often some debate around whether or not to restage the golden age musicals when there are so many new stories waiting to be told. Likewise, in the world of dance, the same questions must arise. What is your opinion on the old versus new debate?
A well-made production holds the history, in a way it is universal, not just the past. With some updates in delivery and technique, I think the golden age productions can bring meaningful messages to our times. As a contemporary dancer, though, I do think there are many stories and new perspectives that need attention as well. I believe that art is to create room for conversation. I hope we can find a good balance for that cause.
I know that the cast and creative team behind the CFT production of South Pacific worked hard to make sure that it is both relevant for today’s audiences and sensitive to the peoples of the cultures that it references. Did you know much about the historical context of South Pacific before you got the part? Did you have much of a say in those conversations?
I didn’t know much about South Pacific before, but during the audition process, Daniel [Evans, Director] and Ann [Yee, Choreographer] told me about the historical context and made sure that I was happy to be part of it. During rehearsals, Ann and I talked a lot about the island and what Liat represents in the show. We saw videos and pictures from South Pacific islands. In the scene work with Daniel, we talked about Liat’s history and how she made decisions in every scene. I feel that we created the character together from today’s perspectives with great details. I really appreciated that process.
And how did you go about preparing to take on the role of Liat, particularly given her place in the story and the challenges of racial and cultural understanding that she faces? What was it that attracted you to this role?
We did research about the island and its culture, and I particularly found the video of water music dance in Vanuatu very inspiring. On the first day of rehearsal, we also had a lecture about the military situation on the island during WW2. We learned about white supremacy in relation to the local people on the island. That helped me understand what Liat and the islanders would have experienced.
Considering that history, Liat is a brave and honest girl, and she is very hopeful. I especially love her willingness to trust someone completely different from her. I think this is an important quality as a person.
Having created the production in 2021 on a thrust stage, what challenges have you faced restaging and rechoreographing it for a tour on proscenium stages? And what has it been like reuniting with some of your cast mates and creative team members from last summer, and welcoming others?
Ann and I choreographed the movements based on the round stage, so we had to adapt some choreography and directions this year, but it was actually nice to refresh some ideas. Reuniting with the cast from last year was very lovely. It’s wonderful how well the character still lives in a person and in the relationship among them. I appreciate the new energy and perspectives that the new cast bring as well. I’m very grateful to be back in this show.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from seeing this show?
From what I see, this show is about willingness to overcome differences; whether it’s in history, age, or race. With the thrilling dancing, beautiful iconic songs, and exquisite acting, I hope this show will bring some hope and joy. I’m very excited for the show!
Thank you, Sera, for taking the time to talk about South Pacific. I hope your time in London and the rest of the tour goes well. I very much look forward to seeing it again.
South Pacific is currently enjoying rave reviews for its London residency at Sadler’s Wells, where it is playing until Sunday 28th August 2022. Tickets, casting and other information can be found at: https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/south-pacific/ Accessible performances are available.
The UK & Ireland tour will then start on Tuesday 13th September in Dublin, before continuing to Newcastle, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Leeds, before closing in Canterbury on Saturday 19th November 2022. Ticket links and more information can be found at: https://southpacificshow.com/tour/