Call me a cockeyed pessimist. While everyone else in the audience at Lincoln Center’s loving revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 South Pacific seemed to be in heaven, I thought I was in a retirement home.
Now, now … before I’m drummed out of town, let me say that the score is an unequalled romantic gem. But you know that. The genius of Richard Rodgers resides, of course, in his enduring, wonderful melodies; Oscar Hammerstein’s in his unpretentious simplicity and humaneness (marred, for some, by a heavy dose of formulaic sentiment). For a certain generation to recall the titles of just a few of the songs from South Pacific—let alone the score of the superior Carousel, or the unsinkable The Sound of Music and The King and I—is to start singing them.
“Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Younger than Springtime,” “This Nearly Was Mine” … Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lush, extraordinary score for South Pacific, and its story of love set on a Polynesian island during the Pacific war, belongs to the era of my parents and grandparents.
It’s one of the signature 50’s shows—along with Gypsy, Porgy & Bess and that perfect musical comedy, Guys and Dolls—that defines the golden age of U.S. musicals. South Pacific ran for 1,925 performances, winning a Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony awards—a massive hit that in turn broke with tradition with its potentially explosive theme of racism.
Are it’s celebrated themes of war and race still relevant today? (Let’s leave romance out of this). After all, West Side Story’s innovatory portrait of gang warfare and Puerto Rican life in New York tenements is arguably dated in the era of In the Heights, and Brecht’s 1920’s preachy, idealistic socialism in The Threepenny Opera is nowadays “unfashionable.”
When South Pacific opened on Broadway, the connection with its audience was palpable. It spoke directly to an America that had been to war and suffered immeasurably. As Laurence Maslon writes in the informative Lincoln Center Theater Review, “That such monumental events, freighted with death and destiny, should constitute the background for a Broadway musical seems almost absurd. But South Pacific made no apologies for and few concessions to its context in human history.”
In today’s context, those “few concessions” look like a few too many. This is a musical ostensibly concerned with the reality of war and racial prejudice that manages to send audiences home happy. When the show’s irresistibly perky heroine from Little Rock, Ark., nurse Nellie Forbush, confidently announces that she’s as “normal as blueberry pie,” it’s both a call to America to celebrate a return to normalcy after an exhausting war, and a self-satisfied declaration of ordinariness.
“I’m as trite and as gay/ As a daisy in May”—well, the girl’s fallen madly in love on an enchanted evening! She’s as “corny as Kansas in August/ high as a flag on the Fourth of July!” And she’s a smug “little hick” who’s “a cockeyed optimist.” Nellie Forbush—what a name!—describes herself happily as a feisty “dope” stuck with “a thing called hope,” and at the soft, comforting center of South Pacific is the complacent personification of a 1950’s America where to be nice and normal is to be acceptable. Who or what is “normal”? Nellie Forbush! She’s meant to make you feel good about yourself—as well as things like patriotism, world wars and racism.
The revival—the first on Broadway since its premiere—has received a sometimes earnest, measured and excellent new staging at the Vivian Beaumont, with Kelli O’Hara making a fresh and wonderful contribution as Nellie, and the rising opera star Paulo Szot as a convincing if slightly wooden Emile. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the cast of 40 and the 30-strong orchestra (Thirty! And not a synthesizer in sight) are themselves nostalgic reminders of another age.
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.