Maisel, Balaban launch feature production

South Pacific” is coming back to the bigscreen after more than half a century.

Amber Entertainment’s Ileen Maisel and Bob Balaban’s Chicagofilms are launching development of a feature production of “South Pacific” with Imagem, owner of the Rodgers & Hammerstein copyrights.

Plans are to keep the beloved songs but pursue a harder-edged version of the iconic musical, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” tome and set on an island during WWII. Maisel and Balaban will produce with Imagem chief financial officer Denis Wigman and Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein company.

“Our movie will be a tougher, more realistic retelling of the same classic story of two very different people whose love for each other transcends their enormous cultural differences,” Balaban said. “We think there’s a whole new audience just waiting to fall in love with its magical score, epic romance and exotic locale.”

The musical, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, became an instant hit when it debuted in 1949 with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Though “South Pacific” is best known for such standards as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “Younger Than Springtime,” it was also groundbreaking at the time for its exploration of racial prejudice.

“South Pacific” has been staged thousands of times since then, and its current Broadway revival at Lincoln Center won seven Tony Awards after its 2008 opening. It’s also currently on national tour.

The 1958 film, directed by Logan and starring Rossano Brazzi, Mitzi Gaynor, John Kerr and Ray Walston, was shot in Hawaii and on Spain’s Balearic Islands. It was that year’s top grosser at $36 million.

Maisel and Balaban began pursuing the idea of a new “South Pacific” after seeing the Lincoln Center revival. That led the duo to Amsterdam-based Imagem — founded in 2008 by pension fund ABP in conjunction with CP Masters — which had acquired Rodgers & Hammerstein in addition to rights to works by Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, John Adams, Wynton Marsalis, Phil Collins, Genesis, the Temper Trap, Vampire Weekend, M.I.A. and Daft Punk.

In addition to “South Pacific,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein rights include “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!” along with hundreds of works by songwriters including Irving Berlin.

Balaban’s feature producing credits including “Gosford Park” and received an Oscar nom for picture. He produced and directed “Bernard and Doris” for HBO, directed “Georgia O’Keeffe” and produced and directed play “The Exonerated.” He’s also co-starred in nearly 100 movies and was nommed for a Tony for “The Inspector” and an Emmy for “Recount.”

Amber Entertainment was created last year by New Line vets Maisel, Jane Fleming and Mark Ordesky (who exec produced the “Lord of the Rings” franchise) along with documentary and TV producer Lawrence Elman. The banner recently won feature rights to Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me” and is prepping thriller “Bad Luck” with David Ellis directing.

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