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Broadway plays on TV make for enchanting evenings

'Wit,' 'South Pacific' get thoughtful remakes for the small screen.

The well-known number "Happy Talk" didn't make the final cut of ABC's new three-hour version of "South Pacific." Neither did some of the theatrical bite of the lead character in last year's Pulitzer prize-winning play, "Wit," as it moves from stage to the small screen on HBO.

But these adjustments are just part of the process of bringing serious stage productions into homes via television. "Wit" airs tomorrow on HBO (9-11 p.m.) and "South Pacific" will air Monday on ABC (8-11 p.m.).

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These well-done adaptations offer a lesson or two in the power of the small screen to deliver a dramatic experience that is different from, but just as meaningful and serious as, the theater.

Wit was written as a play by Margaret Edson. "And when we adapted it for film, for the small screen, we were always led by her metaphors, by her insights," says director Mike Nichols.

Emma Thompson portrays Vivian Bearing, a professor of English literature who specializes in the poet John Donne. "Her life is a metaphor. And her life is teaching metaphor," Nichols says.

Mindful that the intimate nature of TV could change the emphasis of "Wit" from its larger, philosophical issues to a mere close-up on the heroine's physical battle with cancer, Nichols says he focused on the larger themes of the human condition, such as salvation and redemption, that also recur in the poetry of Donne.

"One of the wonders of 'Wit' is that it grows and grows and grows and is about far more than the loneliness of death for one person," Nichols says. "It is about other and complicated things, not just the physical act of dying."

Thompson says there are certain things that work well on television. " 'Wit' was absolutely right for the small screen because it's so intimate and because it's about someone talking to you and taking you by the hand, as it were, and leading you off with them on a very personal journey."

The half-century-old musical South Pacific, starring Glenn Close as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, offered similar challenges.

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"The overall approach to this material was not simply to film 'South Pacific,' " says executive producer Lawrence Cohen of what many regard as one of the greatest stage musicals of the 20th century. "Every [musical] number, and the book itself, was reexplored, and it went back far more to the [James] Michener [book] in terms of writing and the spirit and the truth of the material. It's a very different 'South Pacific' across the boards."

The challenge was in bringing a stage musical to audiences accustomed to the intimate naturalism of today's TV. "South Pacific" is a period piece set during World War II.

"In going back and rereading the Michener [book] that 'South Pacific' was based on, we felt the stories and the writing spirit of this material was so strong that [even] if it did not have the songs of 'South Pacific,' it would have made a great miniseries," says executive producer Michael Gore.

The creative team focused on keeping the narrative of these stories moving forward, which led to dropping "Happy Talk," as well as a significant rearrangement of the song order and a reconceptualization of the songs' settings.

"A perfect example is 'There is Nothing Like a Dame,' " Cohen says, "which in the old show and the 1958 movie is just Seabees singing flat out as a Broadway chorus on the beach."

The ABC movie, shot on location in Australia and Tahiti, takes full advantage of its scenic locales. "Nothing Like a Dame," like all the numbers, was deconstructed, he says. Now it is a tour of the base, with 35 scenes showing the men working.

The TV version also follows characters into what used to be offstage action, depicting war scenes and the final moments of one of the show's heroes. It also goes deeper into visualizing the inner lives of the characters.

"One of the greatest moments which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein just chose not to dramatize is written about in 'Some Enchanted Evening,' where [Nellie and her love Emile] actually see each other across a crowded room," Gore says.

"That moment has never been in the stage musical. [We] go to the Officer's Club at the beginning of the film, which is where they actually meet and do, indeed, see each other across a crowded room."

The key, Cohen adds, was fidelity to the deeper meanings of the stage production.

"If you know 'South Pacific,' it will hopefully appear very similar, but deeper and rearranged in some critical ways that add dramatically," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor