The Tale of South Pacific

If somehow you have missed seeing this truly exceptional show, you can catch it now on Broadway. Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1949 Broadway hit musical has returned in full voice and glory. The world-renowned creators of so many well known and beloved musicals (The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! and The King and I, to mention a few), have never lost their luster – in fact it keeps getting polished! South Pacific may end up being the best loved and most performed Broadway musical of all time.

This wonderful result of the collaboration of Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, among others, has won too many awards to enumerate here. In addition to 10 Tony Awards after its 1949 debut, the 2008 production still running in New York has won 7 more Tony Awards, and the list goes on. The stars of the original Broadway show, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, would surely be pleased with their current successors, Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara, the former already a Tony winner and the latter a three-time nominee.

James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, on which the musical is based, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and when Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II decided to write an adaptation for the stage, Michener even contributed another ‘tale’ to lighten the mood of the serious stories the two were considering.

The drama unfolds in the tropical islands during World War II, where the U.S. Navy has troops stationed and the Japanese occupy other islands in the vicinity. The plot lines converge around the blossoming relationship between Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, as the older man falls in love with the young American, and she with him. Then she discovers that his two children are “half castes”, and cannot overcome her deep-rooted prejudice. The same problem arises when the lonely and bored young American men turn to the only non-military source of female companionship, a Tonkinese (Viet Namese) woman nicknamed Bloody Mary. Lt. Joe Cable is a U.S. Marine who is due to go on a dangerous reconnaissance mission to a Japanese-occupied island. Not realizing that the young woman he assumes is a prostitute is actually Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat, and that he is being encouraged because he might be good “husband material” he begins to fall in love with her anyway.

The question of racial and cultural prejudice is succinctly addressed when Emile asks, forlornly, why Nellie is repelled by his previous marriage to a dark-skinned woman. It is explained to him as something not instinctive but “carefully taught” in the ground-breaking lyrics of the song: “You’ve got to be taught . . . to hate all the people your relatives hate”. Emile the Frenchman cannot understand this attitude, but Nellie and Lt. Cable are still mired in it, and don’t know how to get out.

As the personal dramas plays on, the war looms in the background. Lt. Cable is going on a “reconnaissance” mission to an island occupied by Japanese soldiers. This mission is hopefully going to aid the Americans in winning the war, and Emile finally agrees to go along and help, since he believes he has lost the love of his life. In a tragic/hopeful ending, Joe Cable is killed fulfilling his mission, but Emile escapes with his life. He returns to find Nellie and his children waiting for him, with Nellie now accepting and embracing what she had thought was impossible.

South Pacific continues to ‘enchant’ audiences as much as it ever has. The musical score is irresistible, with such gems as “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Younger Than Springtime”, and the haunting “Bali Ha’i”, it has been performed in countless venues and by many and varied actors and actresses. It never fails to provide a lovely and memorable experience.

Not surprisingly, the most recent revival of South Pacific, which opened on Broadway in 2008, is still drawing sell-out crowds. This time around Kelli O’Hara, a three-time Tony Award nominee, is Nellie. Emile de Becque is played by Bartlett Sher, winner of the Tony Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. The show goes on, and it remains as good as ever-, which is very, very good!
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