“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific,” is how James Michener begins his cycle of stories called The Tales of the South Pacific:
The way it actually was: the endless blue ocean. The infinite specks of corals we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless repetitive waiting.
Michener’s straight talking short stories were the inspiration and source material for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical South Pacific. Set against the backdrop of the War in the Pacific the musical hones in on several of the more colorful and exotic characters presented in three of the 19 stories as well as including bits and pieces from several others. All Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals include a strong romantic component and South Pacific strayed from the traditional path by including two serious romances in one story. Each of the romances has its own set of complications but underneath they share one major theme: racism. Southerner Nellie Forbush is shocked to discover that the man she has fallen in love with (Emile de Becque) has bi-racial children from a union with a Polynesian woman. Princeton educated Lt. Joe Cable has fallen in love with a young Tonkinese woman and struggles with how the interracial relationship might be taken back home within his “upper crust” Philadelphia family. Considering the time period of the stories (1942-44) and the time period of the musical (1949) presenting issues of racism in a mainstream musical was provocative to say the least. South Pacific was certainly not the first Broadway musical to deal with the issue, however. Showboat (1927, also written by Oscar Hammerstein II) delved fully into the subject of interracial marriage and southern bigotry in the post-Civil War south. And while racism and bigotry have certainly improved since the 1940’s in America, complications of race relations still often dominate the headlines letting us know that there is still much work to be done.
The power behind this musical and indeed all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals is their desire and particular ability to present timely and compelling stories in an integrated fashion. They insisted that their musicals have a singular guiding principal; that all the elements of the show (book, music, lyrics, dance, and design) function together to tell a cohesive and compelling story in an entertaining way. Additionally, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s overall approach was to present a positive and hopeful world view. To say that Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most innovative composer/librettist team of their time would not be an overstatement. They set the stage for many other great composers and lyricists to continue to innovate and challenge conventions and to develop one of the greatest American contributions to world art: The Broadway Musical.
And lastly, this show has a wonderful sense of nostalgia for many of us who grew up seeing and listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Even though this is the first time South Pacific has been done on the Clarence Brown Theatre stage, the show has been presented at theatres across America and the world for the last 67 years. For those of us of a certain age, there won’t be a single tune we do not recognize and the familiar characters (Nellie Forbush, Bloody Mary, Emile de Becque, Luther Billis, Joe Cable) will jump from our memories from some great high school production we saw or were in, or from one of the movie versions or from the latest 2008 New York Revival.
I sincerely hope audiences old and young will enjoy this classic, compelling and highly entertaining piece of American Musical Theatre.