Director Bart Sher at Opera Austraila where they are preparing the stage sets for South Pacific

Not all just happy talk … director Bartlett Sher with a model stage set for Opera Australia's staging of South Pacific. Photo: Lee Besford

For most theatregoers, the words ''South Pacific'' conjure up images of a Polynesian version of Sgt Bilko. The backdrop may be war, but all a gal has to worry about is washing that man right out of her hair. Bartlett Sher agrees the grittiness of the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein classic has been lost over the years. As productions toured the world, its ground-breaking themes have been ever more diluted, until all we're left with is a classy piece of escapism set in an exotic location.

So why on earth would Opera Australia add such a golden oldie of musical theatre to its season?

Before you cancel your subscription, Sher would like to put the case for the defence. The acclaimed American director is in Sydney for six weeks to reinvent his Tony award-winning interpretation of South Pacific, which made its debut at New York's Lincoln Centre in 2008 to critical and popular approval.

Sher's 2008 revival was the first time South Pacific had been performed ''on Broadway'' since the original production - a gap of 60 years.

''I wouldn't be the typical guy to direct a musical,'' admits the resident director of the Lincoln Centre. ''I'm a classicist, in an experimental way.'' His long directing career (nine years of it in Seattle) has been spent doing Shakespeare, opera and new works. Success came relatively late, but the Tony nominations have been consistent since he moved to New York seven years ago.

When South Pacific was suggested, Sher viewed it as a historical text as he might have investigated a Mozart comic opera. His main breakthrough was to befriend the (then) guardians of the Rodgers/Hammerstein legacy: daughters Mary and Alice, respectively.

''R and H gave me the original stuff,'' Sher says. ''They cut a lot of material as it was heading into town [New York]. It was all about race. We restored that [in 2008].''

To return to the beginning, Rodgers and Hammerstein had already reinvented the musical with Oklahoma! and Carousel . Then they were delivered the chance to stage James Michener's best-selling book of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, by director Josh Logan, a World War II veteran.

Somewhere in the mix, Rodgers received a call from a desperate friend. His mate had hired the retired Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza for a show that had collapsed. But the contract stipulated Pinza would be paid $US25,000 regardless. Could Rodgers find him something to do?

So Rodgers wrote the role of Emile de Becque, the mysterious French lead (to be played by Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Sydney) for the opera singer.

But who to play Nellie Forbush, the nurse from the Deep South who has her world turned north-south by de Becque? Mary Martin, who was playing the full-blooded Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.

''I love politics,'' Sher says. ''R and H were writing this story in 1948, around the time of the 1948 Democratic convention when Harry Truman was reselected. There was this big fight between [northern Democrats led by] Hubert Humphrey and Senator Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats over race.

''That's what everyone was talking about. R and H were very experimental guys. They tried new things. What I found interesting was what they cut [on the out-of-town tour to the Broadway opening).

''Meanwhile, in 2008, we're in the middle of an election where we're about to vote for Barack Obama as president, and all the race issues were up in the air again.

Nellie is from Arkansas, Cable (Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable, newly arrived from a spy mission at Guadalcanal, and ''probably suffering post trauma symptoms'', according to Sher) is from Princeton University. Both have their Bali Ha'i experience of otherness, where they go overseas and experience other cultures.

''Cable falls in love with an Asian girl. Nellie falls in love with this guy who has these [mixed race] kids.

''Rodgers and Hammerstein made this musical about what this prejudiced Southern woman learns. For me, it's about 'who gets to be included in your family?'

Nellie goes from being completely prejudiced into accepting these two black children into her family. That's a tremendous journey in the course of an evening (in the theatre).

''Nellie is more than 'a cockeyed optimist' - she is the girl who changed.''

Opera Australia's South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sydney Opera House from August 11.