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Art&Seek Q&A: South Pacific's Keala Settle

by Stephen Becker 17 Dec 2009 8:12 AM

Keala Settle performs for her adopted hometown this week as the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific stops at the Winspear Opera House. She talks about the rigors of touring and what she thinks about playing to familiar faces as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:


At the beginning of 2003, Keala Settle was just one of hundreds of people waiting in line to audition for a part she probably wouldn’t get. She had driven from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to audition for the national tour of Hairspray.

“I just knew that if I went, I had nothing to lose,” she says during an interview on Monday.

But then a very unlikely thing happened – she got called back. And called back. And called back. After eight callbacks, she landed a job as Carly Jibson’s understudy for Tracy, the show’s lead role. And when Jibson moved on to New York to take over the role on Broadway, Settle found herself front and center.

Now the actress, who has called Dallas home for the last three years, is starring in another tour – as Bloody Mary in the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, currently playing at the Winspear Opera House. She talks about the rigors of touring and what she thinks about playing to her new hometown as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: Do you remember when you first felt like you could do this for a living?

Keala Settle: Yeah, absolutely. I was I think 2 or 3 years old, and at the time my mom didn’t know what to do with me because I had this [ability] to memorize all of these songs from old 1940s musical movies. When the Disney Chanel first came out, that’s all they aired. And all I would do is memorize these entire shows, and do them in the privacy of my own back yard, not caring what the world thought at age 3 or 4. As I got older, it just became second nature to me and was something that I wanted to do.

A&S: So how did you make the jump from really top-notch amateur to doing it for a living?

K.S.: I didn’t do musicals in high school. In fact, I didn’t know what they were until college, as far as staged musicals for live theater. I thought that musicals were movies that were copied and taken to the stage. … But I did do choir a lot. I loved singing. My mother was a singer. She’s from New Zealand, and she had a band for about 7-8 years.

A&S: You grew up on the North Shore of Oahu. What brought you to Dallas?

K.S.: I had just finished three years of the national tour of Hairspray. And I got tired and I was really sick. And I had a friend of mine who was on the tour with me at the time who helped me out. His family kinda took care of me and kind of nursed me back to society – because tour is a whole different life. So I took a break and stepped away from it.

A&S: In a way, though, when you are on tour for more than a year, isn’t the road your home?

K.S.: It is. It’s another family. What I appreciate about [director] Bartlett Sher is when we first got together in our first meeting in August, the first speech that he made was to remind each one of us company members – both cast and crew – that we were a family, and that we were going on the road to live our lives together and to put this production together and to never forget that. Because in the end, that’s who we have – one another.

A&S: It must be perfect timing for you to have the show come through your adopted hometown around the holidays.

K.S.: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m very grateful to be home with everyone.

A&S: And I would imagine that there will be some faces familiar to you in the crowd.

K.S.: Yes. I have quite a big group of people who are showing up for opening night.

A&S: As a performer, how is it different being on stage knowing that there are people you know in the audience?

K.S.: Well … that’s the trick question, isn’t it? It shouldn’t differ – your performance should be the same, no matter what. How you feel is probably obviously different, because you have family or people who are close to you supporting you and watching you be in this amazing production. But that’s the cardinal rule – you should never change your performance for anyone!

A&S: When this show is over, do you think you will want to head out on the road again?

K.S.: I don’t know. At one point I said I would never do this again, and that was three years ago. And I’m sitting here in front of you eating my words – gratefully. Very gratefully eating my words. I know that right now it brings me so much joy, and I am so grateful for it and I have the opportunity as far as where I stand in the show to appreciate everything. And I hope that I will be able to do that in whatever projects come along in the future.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.

  • Betsy

    Nilufer and I saw South Pacific last night. I have a lifelong disdain for Rodgers and Hammerstein in general and “Happy Talk” in particular, but Keala Settle truly differentiated her Bloody Mary from the annoying film version. Thumbs up.

  • Jennifer

    Saw South Pacific last night — Keala was definitely a stand-out!

  • Debbie

    I’m so happy to see this article. We were there opening night. She sang solo Bali Ha’i so well!

  • Barbara

    My daughter and I saw the show yesterday. Bloody Mary was my favorite, as far as the singing – Keala did a great job!