Monday, November 29, 2010

South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan (1950)

Summary:  American military men are stationed on an island in the South Pacific during World War II.  While a war is going on around them, the primary stories in this play are the relationships.  Featured in the Rodgers/Hammerstein adaptation of James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific are:

Interactions between stationed (and bored) sailors
A budding, serious romance between young nurse Nellie Forbush (from Little Rock) and Emile DeBecque, a mysterious older Frenchman
A flirtation and possibly sexual relationship between young, attractive Lieutenant Cable and Liat, a seventeen year old Tonkinese native.  

An illegal picture taken from my seat at Lincoln Center in August.  Instead of a curtain, Michener's text appeared on the stage before the overture.

In Act 2, Nellie informs Emile that she cannot be with him because his two children (from a deceased wife) are half Polynesian.  She explains that her Little Rock upbringing has influenced her as Lieutenant Cable sings, "You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a different shade--/You've got to be carefully taught" (136).  Heartbroken by the news that Nellie will not be his wife, Emile agrees to help the American soldiers on a very dangerous mission...that is the ultimate end of Lieutenant Cable.  When Emile returns home, Nellie is mothering his children and the play ends in a "happily ever after" embrace.

Thoughts:  It seems strange to me that this is the only Pulitzer Prize for Rodgers and Hammerstein--and even more puzzling that their one Pulitzer is for this play.  This is not a disparaging statement about this South Pacific, but in keeping with the guidelines stating that plays should be about the American experience, I am surprised that Oklahoma! was not awarded. 

When I saw the revival of this play at Lincoln Center in August of 2010, I cringed at the "people whose eyes are oddly made" line and started thinking about the issue of race in the American musical.  Clearly, this is a subject I have been thinking about during the last three months of this project.  In this play, Nellie takes a risk by exposing her feelings about race, but this issue is never dealt with after her initial confession.  In his absence, she realizes that Emile is important to her; but her discomfort with the children is never further explored.

When I saw this play, I quickly noticed that the most memorable songs of the musical take place in the first act...and though the second act is shorter, it seems to drag, certainly in part because of Emile's song "This Nearly Was Mine" which seems to go on forever.  This issue of balance was not as evident while reading the play; because unlike some of the other musicals on the list, there is a great deal of spoken text in this play...rather than text serving as a bridge to get to the next song.

I knew this illegal picture would come in handy someday.  Personal photo, August 2010.

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