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It’ll be some kind of enchanted evening

Branch Fields is returning to the role that made his name on Broadway.[Submitted]
Branch Fields is returning to the role that made his name on Broadway. [Submitted]
From school to Broadway to Drayton, Emile de Becque has always followed Branch Fields. With the new production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific opening at the Drayton Festival Theatre, Fields returns to a role that has come to define his career … and finds that there’s always room to learn about the character.

“I was a bit of a hothead playing this role at first,” says Field. “But our wonderful director, Michael Lichtfeld, has shown me a different approach that is more mature, and more self-assured.”

When we join Emile in South Pacific, he’s already a well-established plantation owner – a French expat who settled in the islands 15 years earlier. He is a widower, with mixed-race children, and finds that the woman he now loves has trouble putting aside her prejudices. In the midst of the Second World War, he also has to make a choice about taking part in a dangerous mission. Suffice to say, it’s a character that demands some maturity, and the longer Fields lives with the role, the more he grows into it.

“In many of the scenes with the officers, Emile is holding the cards in his hands – he’s holding the winning cards. In the show, their fate rests on Emile’s next decision – to participate or not participate in this operation. Having a bit more reserve and being a little more savvy is where the role has come.”

Fields first became immersed in the showwhen he studied music at Indiana University under Giorgio Tozzi – Rossano Brazzi’s voice double in the 1958 film adaptation. Through Tozzi, he became versed in the Rogers and Hammerstein style, singing in the chorus at the university’s production of the show. “I think I did a little variation on the melody once and he stopped me and said, ‘No… Richard Rogers would not like that,’” remembers Fields. “He kept me on the straight and narrow.”

His professional career took off as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but when the market for opera music collapsed in the city, he took a job in the ensemble of South Pacific’s 2008 Broadway revival. He was placed on standby for the role of Emile, and when lead actor Matthew Morrison moved on to star in Glee, it was Fields’ turn at the helm. “Just being in that show – a seven Tony award-winning show – really changes your life,” he says.

After Broadway, he revived the character are various venues in the United States, where reaction to the play was mostly the same. “I have noticed that people in their sixties and early seventies come up to me by the dozens and say this was the first LP that they remember their parents playing, and that they enjoyed as a child. Usually they say they learned every word to the album, listened to it over and over again.

“That audience in that age bracket is just so nostalgic to see the show.  They mouth all the words, and tears are streaming down their cheeks, and it’s just pure nostalgia and pure joy for them to see the show again.”

But when asked if he feels a heavy responsibility to the role – and to a song as popular and beloved as “Some Enchanted Evening” – he says it’s no burden.

“I can fall out of bed singing that song,” he laughs. “It’s so in my voice, and such a part of me. It just comes out without me even thinking about it.”

But was this even the case before he hit the stage in New York? “Actually, I had a bit of time to prepare for Lincoln Centre because they hired me in May and I started in August. I had sung this song at family reunions, weddings, anniversaries …”

Sometimes you need to grow into a role, but it helps to have it already in your blood.

South Pacific plays at the Drayton Festival Theatre May 14-31. Tickets are $25-42, and can be purchased at www.draytonentertainment.com, or by calling 1-855-DRAYTON.

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