South Pacific, with its book based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, tells two stories: There’s the tragic Madama Butterfly subplot between Lt. Joe Cable and a beautiful Polynesian girl; and there’s the main story: the romance between Nellie (nurse to the U.S. troops on the island) and Emile de Becque, a dashing, middle-aged Frenchman and plantation owner who once killed a man. Emile fled to the island where his now-deceased Polynesian lover bore him two utterly adorable children.
Why are Rodgers and Hammerstein children different from all other children? Because they make you ill. The show opens with Emile’s tiny tots, Ngana and Jerome, being adorable. (“Dites-moi/ Pourquoi/ La vie est belle!”). South Pacific is the only American musical I know that begins and ends in French. Be that as it may, the smitten Emile and Nellie will part abruptly when it very belatedly dawns on her that these two black children he lives with are his own.
James Michener describes the pivotal scene uncompromisingly: “Emile de Becque had lived with the nigger. He had nigger children. If she married him, they would be her stepdaughters. She suffered a revulsion which her lover could never understand.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein fudge the same scene. “It means that I can’t marry. Do you understand?” Nellie tells Emile vaguely.
Emile gradually understands:“It is their Polynesian mother then—their mother and I?”
“Yes…. There is no reason. This is emotional. This is something that is born in me. …”
The word “black” is never mentioned, let alone nigger. The oblique, veiled hints were daring enough in their day, perhaps. They’re particularly lame now that we’re meant to be having a national conversation about race. They really serve as a melodramatic lead-in to the singular song about prejudice, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Surprisingly, it isn’t sung by Emile, but by Lieutenant Cable in response to Emile’s exasperated question, “What makes her talk like that? Why do you have this feeling, you and she? I do not believe it is born in you. I do not believe it.”
“It’s not born in you!” Lieutenant Cable replies. “It happens after you’re born. …”
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year >
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Emile’s distracting, meltingly lovely ballad “This Nearly Was Mine” follows immediately after—the issue of race is left behind. There are only five scenes to go.
Disillusioned Emile goes on to prove his real worth by volunteering to guide Lieutenant Cable’s submarine on a suicide mission against the Japs. The heroic young lieutenant is killed in action. Emile is presumed dead (though “there’s always a chance”). Meanwhile, overnight, Nellie has seen the error of her racist ways and is looking after Emile’s incurably cute singing children.
“Oh my God, don’t die until I can tell you! All that matters is you and I being together,” Nellie cries out, pining to herself. “That’s all! Just together …”
Reprises of “Some Enchanted Evening” and the Seabees’ “Honey Bun” follow. (“A hundred and one/ Pounds of fun/ That’s my little honey bun!/ Get a load of honey bun tonight!”) Finally, Emile is reunited with Nellie and the awful kiddies when he suddenly appears on the terrace like Maria returning to the fold in The Sound of Music. He joins in a reprise of “Dites-Moi.” (“Dites-moi / Pourquoi/ La vie est gaie!”)
Well, what did you expect! It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, in case you forgot.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.