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In Revival, 'South Pacific' Still Has Lessons to Teach

In the Broadway revival of <em>South Pacific</em>, Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara take on parts made famous by opera star Ezio Pinza and Broadway sweetheart Mary Martin.
Joan Marcus
In the Broadway revival of South Pacific, Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara take on parts made famous by opera star Ezio Pinza and Broadway sweetheart Mary Martin.

One of the most popular musicals of all time — Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific — gets its very first Broadway revival tonight. It's been close to 60 years since the show opened, but the cast and creative team of the new production say they find South Pacific as resonant as ever.

And that's a tall order: When South Pacific opened on April 7, 1949, its World War II story and setting had a torn-from-the- headlines feeling.

"Every single person that night in April knew someone who had been in World War II," says musical-theater historian Larry Maslon. "Every second person must've known someone who was in the South Pacific in World War II — and I would imagine at least every fourth person knew someone who died in World War II. And that's very potent, I think, for an audience."

Of course South Pacific had more than topicality going for it. Inside a candy wrapper of romance, comedy and exoticism, the creators — composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist and co-author Oscar Hammerstein and director and co-author Joshua Logan — presented a story that questioned core American values, with an emphasis on issues of race and power.

"I was always moved by this group of American artists in the '40s encountering this first major experience of American military power overseas and what it did to people," says director Bartlett Sher, who's in charge of the new Lincoln Center revival. "You know, what happens when somebody from Philadelphia and somebody from Arkansas get dropped into this new world, and they have to question everything about who they are and everything about who they think they were and what they believe."

A Lavish Revival for an Audience Favorite

South Pacific is based on a book of short stories by James Michener, derived from his own experiences as a Navy lieutenant. The original production was a phenomenon: It ran for close to five years, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as eight Tony Awards, and spawned a chart-topping original cast album and an extremely popular film version — which is how most people now know it.

Lincoln Center Theatre has gone for broke with its South Pacific revival. It's deploying a cast of 40 actors and an orchestra of 30 — both big numbers by today's standards, even on Broadway. Artistic director Andre Bishop (who confesses that South Pacific is his "favorite musical ... always has been") argues that the investment is worth it.

"The show appeals to people," Bishop says, "because what is it about? It's about loneliness, it's about love, it's about war — though in fact it's mostly about people waiting to go to war — it's about people of different cultures coming together and attempting to find a common language."

Brazilian-born bass Paulo Szot (pronounced "shot") plays Emile de Becque, the French planter who falls for American Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. He says the show is in the audience's DNA.

"They know the songs," Szot says. "And I can almost feel when I sing, for example, 'Some Enchanted Evening,' that they are singing with me."

Shock Values, Then and Now

Tony-nominated actress Kelli O'Hara plays Nellie Forbush, the young Army nurse from Little Rock, Ark.

Nellie may, as one song lyric puts it, fall joyously "in love with a wonderful guy," but she's also forced to confront her own prejudice. She's shocked to find out that Emile has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman, and she breaks off her engagement to him. For O'Hara, that shock is a difficult emotion to play in 2008.

"I hear people gasping when I use the word 'colored,' which I expected," she says. "But [in 1949], they didn't even need to say the word 'colored' — they didn't need any of that. The audience knew what the problem was."

In fact, the line with that word was cut from the original production; it's been restored in the revival, to clarify Nellie's mindset.

"We actually have to over-explain it," O'Hara says. "And so when we do ... you hear people audibly gasping. It makes me feel dirty ... I want to apologize, but I don't because I think that gets us to the end of the play. And that's why it's so rewarding."

'Carefully Taught,' at the Heart of a Carefully Built Show

It's not only Nellie who deals with race in South Pacific. In the musical's subplot, Lt. Cable, scion of a proper Philadelphia family and the only character who's actually seen combat, falls in love with a Tonkinese girl named Liat.

"He's been around so much death and been so transformed by that experience," says Sher, the revival's director. "When he sees somebody so beautiful and so full of life, he's pulled in by that."

But Cable can't bring himself to marry Liat because of his own cultural upbringing. His disgust at his failure to overcome it erupts in the angry, ironic "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

The song was controversial in 1949. Author James Michener ran into some friends after the New Haven tryout who said they loved the show, but thought the song should be cut. So he met with Rodgers and Hammerstein the next day, says historian Larry Maslon.

"And Rodgers and Hammerstein said, 'Well, we think if you cut that song, you cut the guts out of the show.' And Michener said, 'That's what I was hoping to hear' — because he agreed 101 percent."

Maslon, who's written a coffee-table book about South Pacific, says the show is so carefully constructed that even the upbeat, vernacular songs for the Seabees — the Navy's construction brigade — underscore the clash of cultures.

"They sing about Pepsodent, they sing about DiMaggio, they sing this very American stuff," Maslon explains. "They say the word 'damn' ... which you didn't have in too many shows back then. And so it's almost like they're an American assault force of language and style."

Sher, the director, argues that South Pacific is more than a cultural artifact. The potential inherent in any classic, he says, "is it can return to us from our own past, to give us lessons about the future."

"And it can give us a sense of both who we were and who we could become," Sher says. "And this thing accomplishes that — this extraordinary musical is filled with complexity and hope about the kind of country we can be.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.