When the original production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949, the critic Richard Watts Jr. called it "one of the finest musical plays in the history of the American theatre." More than 60 years later, the luminous revival, directed by Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, confirms the show's timelessness.
The rhapsodic score, packed with standards, has long been recognized as one of Broadway's finest. The hit parade includes "Younger Than Springtime," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Bali Ha'i," "A Wonderful Guy," the achingly beautiful "This Nearly Was Mine" and, most famously, the sublime "Some Enchanted Evening." In fact, the score is so resplendent that the book, written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, is frequently given short shrift. "As much as I love the music, the book is very strong and creates a serious situation that gives the music context," says Sher. "I'm not sure the book ever quite got the support it deserves."
Based on James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" and set during World War II, South Pacific explores racial prejudice, a daring subject for a mid-20th-century — or 21st-century — musical. The romance between Emile de Becque, a middle-aged, "cultured Frenchman," and Nellie Forbush, the "little hick" from Arkansas, is imperiled by her inability to accept his interracial children. More audacious for its time is the secondary story between Liat, a Tonkinese girl, and the American Lt. Joe Cable. It's Cable who confronts his own bigotry with "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," a song considered so controversial that many theatre people urged Rodgers and Hammerstein to cut it. When the show toured the South in the early 1950s, several Georgia legislators, offended by the lyrics' "justification of interracial marriage," attempted to ban works that professed "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."
Other scenes dealing with race were cut before South Pacific opened on Broadway, most likely, Sher believes, because the show was running long. He was given access to that material and made some restorations, including the song "My Girl Back Home." "Hammerstein's political consciousness is unquestioned," says Sher. "He was so far ahead of his time, and it was very brave of them to explore the issues that they did. By putting back that one song and restoring some dialogue in which Nellie and Cable talk about prejudice, it makes the scenes that much richer."
Sher also accentuates the bigotry in subtle ways. In "There Is Nothing Like A Dame," the African-American Seabees always stand apart from the white Seabees. "I thought it was more helpful to the character of Nellie to show that she was part of a racist world," says Sher. "I did a lot of research, and racism was much more intense than I think even Rodgers and Hammerstein realized. For instance, African-Americans were always given munitions detail, so if something blew up in an accident, they were the first ones killed. Roosevelt had ordered the desegregation of the military, but [Admiral Chester] Nimitz, who was the head of the Navy in the Pacific, refused to comply.
"And the island had its own issues. There were imported Tonkinese workers and a very dark-skinned local population that worked for de Becque, plus the French. All I tried to do was layer in what we know now."
That attention to detail extends to the romantic aspects of the show as well. Michael Yeargan's spare set, which is little more than beach, sky and a palm tree, with blinds demarcating indoor spaces, is expansive and hauntingly evocative. The exquisite lighting by Donald Holder underscores the shifting moods and changing landscapes. And a large orchestra — an anomaly in musical theatre today — gives full voice to Richard Rodgers' gorgeous melodies and Robert Russell Bennett's thrilling orchestrations.
Sher says that those seeing the touring production will not be disappointed. "The orchestration is so beautiful, and there's a lot of effort on the part of the tour to get almost the full complement of musicians everywhere we go." And though the Broadway production was created for a thrust stage, and the tour has been reconfigured for proscenium stages, "audiences will essentially see the same sea and sky and palm tree."
South Pacific was the recipient of seven Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Revival of a Musical. Sher, Yeargan, Holder and costume designer Catherine Zuber were also honored. The original production received nine Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize. But there had never before been a Broadway revival because there was a perception that the book was dated. Instead, it resonates in profound ways for contemporary Americans.
"What I find most beautiful about this show is how Nellie comes to accept a different way of thinking about family," says Sher. "She could never have imagined back in Arkansas that she would accept interracial children. Today we're in the midst of people fighting for equality in marriage: for America to survive, we have to be a bigger family. We have to accept everyone into the family, whether they're Republicans or Democrats or straight or gay or black or white or Asian or whatever. The other thing is that we have a different experience as Americans abroad in relationship to war than they did in 1949. So you look at the show through the frame of who we've become, how we've dealt with issues of race, how we are as a military culture. The history of America since 1945 could be viewed as the history of engaging otherness — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, the Arab world. We're confronting otherness all the time. And South Pacific is the beginning of that story."