The Story Behind South Pacific

In 1944, Lieutenant-Commander James Michener was serving as a general go-to guy for the Navy on the tiny South Pacific island of Espiritu Santu when he was confronted with an unusual problem: A sailor had been officially discharged from duty but refused to leave the area and return to his family home in Alabama. It turned out that the young man had fallen in love with a local island girl, and she was bearing his child. The sailor had no problem serving in combat against the Japanese fleet, but the idea of telling his parents in L.A. (Lower Alabama) that he wanted to marry a “nigger” simply terrified him. The enemy on the other side of the world was by no means easy to fight, yet confronting the enemy within was considerably harder.

This was the germ of one of the 19 interconnected stories that Michener wove into his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific, which in turn inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, South Pacific. On the occasion of the show’s first-ever Broadway revival (nearly 60 years after the fact) comes Laurence Maslon’s The South Pacific Companion, which details the entire history of this classic work of the American musical theater. Though it hasn’t been seen on Broadway since the original run closed in 1954, South Pacific has been produced all over the world and made into two successful films.

Most making-of show and movie books are little more than glorified souvenir programs. Yet just as South Pacific cuts deeper than most frothy Broadway musicals (it was decidedly not directed by Roger DeBris), so too does Mr. Malson’s oversize and profusely illustrated Companion. He shows how Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan carved a concise and coherent story out of Michener’s sprawling saga, then recounts the difficulties in casting it with a musical comedy star (Mary Martin) playing opposite a bass-baritone from the opera, and the courageous decision of all involved, following the lead of the producer-composers, to use the show as a protest against racism—something unheard of in popular entertainment at the time, and which could have easily gotten all of them blacklisted.

This is hardly the usual Broadway backstory. Mr. Maslon does a fascinating job of interconnecting the lives of the four key creators, Michener, Hammerstein, Rodgers and Logan, against the backdrop of the Pacific theater of operations in the Second World War. He shows how Tales of the South Pacific was neither novel nor short-story anthology—and, at the same time, neither purely fact nor purely fiction. Many of the situations and characters were directly taken from Michener’s personal encounters: “Emile de Becque” had his origin in a copra planter Michener knew well in Espiritu; “Bloody Mary” was the actual name of a Tonkinese woman who had led a local revolt.

South Pacific has always triggered powerful reactions: In 1957, it nearly inspired a race riot at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, of all places, when heroine Nellie Forbush announced that she was from Little Rock—a few weeks earlier, President Eisenhower had sent in troops to Little Rock to enforce integration.

In 2005, a concert version was staged at Carnegie Hall starring the Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell as de Becque. In the audience that night was the singer’s father, a World War II veteran who had been one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, I remember thinking how incredible it was that Mr. Mitchell’s father had had to fight a war on two fronts: against the Luftwaffe over Europe, and against deeply entrenched racism at home.

Seeing South Pacific again at Lincoln Center and reading Mr. Maslon’s book reminds us that all Americans were, to a degree, fighting two wars at once—and the battle continues.

Will Friedwald is the author of Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs (Chicago). He can be reached at books@observer.com.

The Story Behind South Pacific