Today we are engaged in the longest running war in U.S. history and still struggle with issues of racism, gender equality and class disparity. Question: Can a vintage musical address these issues with relevance to today’s world?
South Pacific is a rich tapestry of emotions; lust, love, friendship, fear and longing. Simmering as its characters wait and wait for their call to battle with the Japanese on a remote island base.
(Possible spoiler alert, I’ll try to not give away too much of the plot as I pique your interest in the characters.)
Through most of the first act, it’s a romance, hot and steamy in a tropical paradise. Navy Nurse Nellie falls in love with the sophisticated French planter Emile, even though they are from very different worlds.
Lieutenant Cable, an airman sent to the island for a secret surveillance mission watches his lust for an island girl turn to love. Billis, the Seabee who seemingly runs the island and provides the comic relief, obviously loves Nellie and would do anything for her, including risking his life. She’s an officer, he’s a gentleman, and she is strictly off limits.
Nellie and Lt. Cable wonder together what life would be like living in paradise with their new loves after the war is over.
Then the constraints they have been taught and raised under get in the way of their love and their respective worlds come crashing down, just as the call to battle grows nearer.
What’s the problem you say? Emile is a widower, previously married to a woman with whom he with two children. Nellie can’t come to grips with the fact he had kids with a Polynesian. (The original book uses the n-word instead of Polynesian.) Cable has the similar problem, how can he love someone who is different. They have both been taught growing up to hate those who are different. Billis has a different issue, aside from always being in trouble with the top brass. You see, the Navy has made all nurses officers and enlisted men can’t fraternize with officers.
Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949 and ran through 1954. You’ve probably seen it, countless production in high schools, colleges and community theatres have been staged over the years as well as movies and TV specials.
It returned to Broadway in 2008 in Lincoln Center’s brilliant revival where it won several Tony’s including best revival of a musical. In addition to the upcoming production, Pittsburgh CLO staged it in 2001. (Sutton Foster was a charming Nellie in ’01 [pictured above], just prior to her debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie and her first Tony.)
The book is subtle and nuanced; it’s easy to get caught up in the joy and fun of the songs and choreography. Rodgers, Hammerstein and co-author and original Broadway Director Josh Logan wrap you up in the joy of love and friendship only to rip your heart out with the realities of war and our human shortcomings. The songs are classics of American musical theatre. The book reflects the transition to plot centered musicals with richly complex characters. Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations of Rodgers’ score are rich and enveloping, placing you on the island paradise and the tensions resulting.
Of note, after the out of town tryout, the producer’s were urged to remove the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” as it was too racially charged. Thankfully, they refused because “that’s what the show is all about”.
Answer: Absolutely. No matter how many times you have seen South Pacific it is worth another visit to this richly complex masterpiece of American musical theatre.
South Pacific closes the 2016 CLO summer season at the Benedum August 5th to 14th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photo credits: Matt Polk