Ben Neutze spoke to Blake Bowden at the end of his first week of rehearsals to play Lieutenant Joe Cable in the return season of Opera Australia and GFO’s South Pacific
Just one week into rehearsal, South Pacific is already a career highlight for Blake Bowden.
“I love the classics,” he says. “That’s what brought me to musical theatre in the first place. That’s what brought most of us to musical theatre. The thrill and the honour of actually getting to do them is incredible.”
No stranger to the classics, the 28-year-old actor understudied and performed both Tony and Riff in West Side Story in 2010, before going on to win the prestigious Rob Guest Endowment the next year. He also created the role of Pat Matthews in the Cat Stevens musical Moonshadow.
But his role in South Pacific, Joe Cable, presents him with a whole new set of challenges and just as many rewards. He’s taking over the role from Daniel Koek, who is currently appearing as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on the West End.
At the beginning of the show, Joe is new to the island where all the action takes place and is very much an all-American soldier. He’s engaged to a girl in the US, but throughout the course of the show he searches for meaning, finds love and has his world-view completely changed.
“Joe is such a conflicted character,” Bowden says. “He’s so determined to go on this incredibly dangerous mission for many different reasons. But there’s this great sense of trying to accomplish something in war.
“A lot of the guys in the second world war, through the research that I’ve done, spoke about this feeling of hopelessness and how they didn’t really feel like they did anything. They just felt like they were trying not to get shot. Everyone kept calling them heroes. I think for Joe, he wants to be an actual hero.”
Joe also has one of Rodgers and Hammersteins’ most beautiful love stories and the beautiful songs to match. Despite being engaged, Joe falls madly in love with Liat, a young girl from Bali Hai, and sings the iconic ‘Younger Than Springtime’.
Later on in the show, when Joe realises people back home will never accept his relationship with Liat, he sings ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’, a song that controversially tackled the way people can teach racist attitudes to their children. It was met with protest and legislators in some American states attempted to have the song banned and removed from the show.
“That song really is shoving it down people’s throats about how racist they were and how absurd it is that you’re taught to have these feelings that aren’t born in you,” Bowden says. “Singing it brings up this incredible anger at the stupid injustice in the world.”
Over the years, the controversy died down, but the 2008 Broadway production of South Pacific, upon which the Australian production is based, was praised for the way it brought the ever-present racial tensions in the work back to the forefront. Bowden feels that director Bartlett Sher has managed to do so largely by bringing complexities out of the relationship between Joe and Liat.
“The way that Bloody Mary sort of puppeteers Liat (her daughter) and controls her, which is done so beautifully just before ‘Younger Than Springtime’, it’s so manipulative. Even ‘Happy Talk’; usually it’s quite a cutesy song, but the way Bartlett has directed this, it’s all about Mary trying to manipulate the situation to get Liat to marry an American to get that American passport.”
Bowden will have the opportunity to work with Sher when he returns to Australia to spend a week working with the cast towards the end of the rehearsal period. He says he’s heard from the returning cast that working with Sher is a fantastic and enlightening experience, but working with the cast and creative team has already been thrilling.
“It’s such a joy to be in a room with such incredible actors and incredible singers all at the same time. As a young actor, you always want to work with people you look up to. Pretty much everyone in that room, I look up to in terms of their skills, talents and the careers they have.”
Most of all, Bowden is excited to get out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage to perform in a show that is absolutely adored by audiences.
“I love Rodgers and Hammerstein and have wanted to do one of their shows for a very long time. I think because I love the songs as much as the audience does, it will just be the biggest joy every night to sing them.”
South Pacific plays Sydney from 10 September, Perth from 10 November and Adelaide from 29 December. More information and bookings are at southpacificmusical.com.au