Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Talking to JARED BYBEE who plays Emile de Becque in the national tour of SOUTH PACIFIC

Jared Bybee and Maris McCulley
Photo by Felix Rodriguez

By Gil Benbrook

The musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein have produced not only some of the most recognizable songs from the musical theatre but also shows with stories that touch upon important social issues. Their musical South Pacific, which was based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, features the hit songs "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "Happy Talk," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," and "Bali Ha'i," and focuses on racial prejudice between US military personnel and the locals on a South Pacific island during World War II.

Jared Bybee has had numerous roles in the world of opera, including recently playing Escamillo in Carmen at Charleston Opera Theater, Don Giovanni at Seattle Opera, and The Pilot in The Little Prince at Utah Opera, and also sang with Arizona Opera in The Barber of Seville. He has also appeared in numerous TV shows and films.

For the national tour of South Pacific, Bybee takes on the classic role of Emile de Becque, which has been played by such famous opera stars a Ezio Pinza and Paulo Szot, and the national tour of the show plays the Orpheum Theatre for five performances this weekend, April 1-3.

In between stops on the tour, Bybee sat down to answer some questions about the show, the important social messages that Rodgers and Hammerstein tackle in it, as well as what it's like being back on the road after having so much time off due to COVID.

South Pacific is a classic musical, but for someone who has never heard of it, what would you tell them it's about?

Jared Bybee: "For someone who has never heard of South Pacific, I’d describe it to them as a story of love, loss, and redemption. Set during World War II, the musical tells the story of two couples and how their happiness is threatened by the realities of war and by their own prejudices. Many characters face loss of happiness due to prejudices, so it’s about overcoming their own biases for love."

What can you tell us about the character you play in the show, Emile de Becque?

"Emile de Becque is a strongly principled man. He left his home country due to injustice that he witnessed and stood against. He’s now found a second chance at creating a life for himself in the South Pacific, and at love after losing the mother of his children. "

What type of research did you do for the role?

"In preparation for this role, I read Mitchner’s Tales of the South Pacific, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel of which the musical is based on. I also watched the original film, as well as the West End production, in addition to working with my acting coach Jon Marans."

The role of Emile de Becque has been played by several famous opera singers in the past, and you have vast experience of appearing in operas, including in The Barber of Seville here in the state with Arizona Opera. How do you approach playing a character like de Becque as compared to once in the numerous operas you've appeared in?  

"What makes this role and experience different from past roles in opera that I’ve performed, for one, is having the ability to sing in my native language, which is a great luxury to be able to emote in. The role lends itself to an operatic vocalist, and having unsung dialogue allows me to delve deeper into the character in ways I’ve never done before. Also, rather than an opera or a musical, this story is better described as a play or a story with music to elevate and drive home the important messages throughout."

Rodgers and Hammerstein wisely incorporated social issues into most of their shows, including tackling the issue of racial prejudice in South Pacific - What can you tell us about how those issues are depicted in the show and why you feel they are still important to address today?

"The issues depicted in the show are best highlighted through the two romantic relationships in the show, which are that of Liat and Cable, and Emile and Nellie. The heart of the struggles and biases presented in the show are best summarized in Cable’s song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught. That song is truly the central message of the story. Also, the reality that not everyone gets a second chance is made prevalent throughout the show, so it’s important to choose love and acceptance the first time around. Our culture has become highly aware of racial issues and injustice, so the messages presented in this show have never been more relevant and important to bring to audiences."

What is your favorite moment in the show, and why is it your favorite?

"It is nearly impossible to choose a favorite moment in this show. I’m working with so many talented performers that create memorable moments constantly throughout the show, so having said that, I suppose the simplest answer is that any moment shared with a castmate is even more cherished than the last."

South Pacific is a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a vast number of well known songs. Do you have a favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song and is there any particular reason why it’s your favorite?

"My favorite song of Rodgers and Hammerstein would have to be Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy from Carousel. That piece of music effortlessly highlights the masterful storytelling that has kept R&H’s compositions such a relevant and revered part of the culture."

What has it been like being on the road and touring the country with this show after so many live theatre and opera productions were shut down two years ago in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic?

"After the pandemic shut down live performances for nearly two years, being on a national tour performing every night is a most surreal experience. We, as performers, don’t take a single moment on stage for granted, and our audiences share our excitement for live performances after so much time away. Also, being able to travel to so many beautiful places throughout my home country that I’ve never visited before is an incredible experience."

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing South Pacific at the Orpheum Theatre?

"I hope that audiences leave a performance of South Pacific truly recognizing just how far we have come as a society, and feeling inspired to stay diligent so that history doesn’t repeat itself."

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