1949 production back in the swing of things

“South Pacific” is a Broadway anomaly: a familiar fave that’s rarely seen.

While producers of “Gypsy,” “Les Miz” and “A Chorus Line,” for example, must have worried about how soon is too soon to bring back a much-loved show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” has not played on Broadway since the original 1949 incarnation.

That only ups the anticipation factor for the current Lincoln Center Theater revival, helmed by Bartlett Sher and designed by the same creative team with whom he worked on 2005 LCT hit “The Light in the Piazza.” Starring Kelli O’Hara, Matthew Morrison and opera singer Paulo Szot, “Pacific” began previews March 1 and opens April 3.

The half-century wait between Broadway productions is partially the result of the careful guardianship by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Org, which governs the rights to the show.

It’s also partially an accident of timing. Those involved say the biggest hurdle for “South Pacific” lies not in the way its story grapples with racial prejudice, but in assembling a suitable cast.

“South Pacific” ranks as one of the most-requested properties for the R&H Org, right behind “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!”

In the last 50 years, it’s had successful touring companies, regional productions and West End revivals, but Gotham incarnations have been scarce.

“We wanted to put the show in hands we trust,” says R&H Org prexy Ted Chapin.

Years ago, there was a limited-engagement revival at City Center, a 1987 City Opera staging and, most recently, a 2005 concert version that was a one-night-only hot ticket at Carnegie Hall.

The popularity of the Carnegie Hall event, which starred Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell, built momentum for a revival. “But it was never perceived by anybody as a pre-Broadway engagement,” Chapin says of that pared-down concert version, with its mammoth orchestra of 45.

Soon after that concert, LCT a.d. Andre Bishop, who says he’s wanted to produce “South Pacific” all his life, suggested a potential revival helmed by Sher, fresh off his success with “Piazza” (composed by Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel).

“In its own way, ‘Light in the Piazza’ was a romantic musical play,” says Bishop. “It seemed important that whoever directed ‘South Pacific’ was both a musical and a play director, because there are whole bunches of book scenes that are as layered and as complex as any play.”

“I thought this is the team that will honor what’s there to honor,” Chapin says. “The time felt right; the people felt right.”

Like the original production, the Lincoln Center revival has a pit of around 30 musicians (roughly double the average on Broadway these days) and uses the original orchestrations. There are 40 actors. Few cuts have been made to the book, while there have been a handful of additions of material that was cut during the initial rehearsal process for the 1949 premiere.

Concerns over the story, particularly about a show with a central heroine whose innate racism might today be deemed unsympathetic, were not much of a factor.

“It only was to the extent that we needed a team who knows it’s there and can figure out what to underscore,” Chapin says.

It was finding the right ensemble that was the really hard part.

“It’s always been rather daunting,” Bishop says. “We cast the show for nine months.”

Chapin had reservations about a revival conceived around a big-name thesp. “It’s been perceived as a star vehicle, and so a lot of the conversations we had were focused on that. But it always seemed troubling to me that it would be the ‘So-and-so in’ production of ‘South Pacific.’ “

Despite rumors of Reese Witherspoon, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson being up for the Nellie role, Bishop says celeb casting for the formidable lead roles was barely considered. “You really have to have stamina, energy, technique and stage savvy to get through the two leading parts, especially Nellie,” he says.

Set on a South Pacific island during WWII, the musical centers on the romance between U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (O’Hara) and French island resident Emile de Becque (Szot), a relationship threatened when Nellie’s discovery of Emile’s half-Polynesian children rekindles the racism she grew up with in Little Rock, Ark.

The original production paired Mary Martin with opera singer Ezio Pinza and went on to win nine Tonys and the 1950 Pulitzer. The show ran about five years, an unusually long stint at the time.

The revival has ended up mirroring the original casting, with a Broadway veteran (O’Hara) in Martin’s role and an unfamiliar face with opera training (Szot) in Pinza’s.

With two stars of “Light in the Piazza,” O’Hara and Morrison, reuniting with helmer Sher, it’s only natural to wonder how long the show can run if it proves a hit. “Light” ran for more than a year, displacing other shows in the LCT season to rented Rialto houses.

So far, box office is promising, with 80% of the initial 16-week engagement sold. But Bishop refuses to count chickens.

“The work will tell us what to do,” he says. “If it’s well-received, we’ll do whatever we have to.”

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