By Lawrence Henley
To honor the Greatest Generation, the legendary team of composers Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, Director Joshua Logan, and Producer Leland Hayward created the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, South Pacific. It's the story of mid-twentieth-century Americans sent to an earthly paradise amid the hellish fighting of World War II, and their discovery of a new world and its traditions. More than just one of Broadway's most popular titles, it's an equally fascinating study in sociology, an observation of what can happen when diverse cultures collide.
The play, first produced in 1949, chronicles the wartime experiences of an undiscovered writer searching for his muse. Its genesis was James Michener’s 1947 novel Tales of the South Pacific, a bestseller that launched his distinguished career. After numerous career starts, Michener was still indecisive about what he wanted to be. Drafted at age thirty-five into the Navy and assigned duty as a military historian, he defeated the boredom of off-duty hours by documenting his time in the Polynesian Islands. He left with a manuscript that became his Pulitzer-winning first book.
Tales of the South Pacific is infused with the enchantment, adventure, and remarkable people Michener experienced during World War II. Most fascinating to Michener was the lively, hybrid culture created by the cross-pollination of Europeans, Americans, Tonkinese (Vietnamese), and the native islanders. His chapters “Fo' Dolla',” “Our Heroine,” “Coral Sea,” and “A Boar's Tooth” contain the unforgettable characters in South Pacific: Bloody Mary, Lieutenant Joe Cable, Emile DeBecque, Ensign Nellie Forbush, and Luther Billis.
Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (libretto) are universally considered to be the most successful composing team of Broadway's golden age. Each garnered considerable success with their previous partners, Lorenz Hart (Rodgers) and Jerome Kern (Hammerstein). Ironically, Hart’s illness and Kern’s sudden death led them to form Broadway's foremost alliance. Already celebrated for the groundbreaking hits Oklahoma (1943) and Carousel (1945), by late 1948 Rodgers and Hammerstein were searching for a new vehicle to follow those successes. At a party Logan, having purchased the theatrical rights from Michener, asked Rodgers to read Tales of the South Pacific. Rodgers agreed that it had smash hit potential, but could recall only that "some S.O.B. he met at a cocktail party" already owned the property. When Hammerstein reminded him that the owner was their colleague, Josh Logan, Rodgers replied, "Logan! That's the S.O.B.!"
The American military and their Allies fought World War II in two battle zones: the European (against Italy and Nazi Germany) and Pacific theatres (against Imperial Japan). Some of the fiercest fighting of this conflict took place in the Melanesian Island region, which serves as the backdrop for Michener’s stories. Espiritu Santo, an island in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), was a major supply base and staging area for the Allies. Like the American servicemen and women of that era, the characters in South Pacific find themselves on this alluring island in service of country, unaware of the cultural awakening that’s in store for them. They're soon intoxicated by the island-sphere.
Much like Michener, youthful nurse Nellie Forbush has yet to pinpoint exactly what she wants from life, although she’s certain it’s got to be more than Little Rock A-R-K can provide. At an officer’s club fete, she meets a handsome Frenchman who will change her life. Trying to resist temptation, she just can’t seem to “wash him out of her hair,” even after discovering his past.
French expatriate and wealthy plantation owner Emile DeBecque has no stake in this war and, while friendly with the Americans, he protects his neutrality. He does, however, share a belief in the same principles the Allies are sacrificing their lives to defend. Initially refusing to become involved, his attitude changes course with the fear that Espiritu will fall to the Japanese.
Many years Nellie's elder, Emile is equally taken with her, yet cautious to reveal the troubling details of his youth. Forced to flee after killing a crime boss in self-defense, he signed on with a merchant ship headed for the French island territories, stumbling unsuspectingly into a new way of life. Reinventing himself, DeBecque married a Tonkinese woman. Prior to her premature death their union produced two beautiful mixed-race children, and despite Nellie’s blossoming love for him, the frightened nurse runs when he finally discloses this to her.
To offset the danger and stress of military life, the creative team added comic relief. Logan knew from his own military experience that the craftiest sailors were quick to seize opportunities for quick profit and misadventure. Enter Luther Billis, conniving Seabee, haggling over island trinkets with his feisty Tonkinese trading partner, Bloody Mary. Luther has a talent for maneuvering around regulations to get what he wants. The scrappy Mary is Luther’s biggest rival and the gatekeeper to Bali H'ai, a mysterious island where the plantation owners have sequestered their women.
Princeton educated Joe Cable knows a potentially fatal mission awaits him in the New Hebrides. He must recruit a local guide and stealthily transport communications gear to an enemy controlled island. Facing the prospect of torture or death, he succumbs to the lure of Bali H'ai. Coerced by Billis, Cable charters a boat to experience the ceremonial extraction of a boar’s tooth, coconut liquor, barely clad women, and the Dionysian rituals that follow. While Billis follows his own pursuits, Bloody Mary leads Cable to a shaded hut for a liaison with Liat, her stunningly beautiful daughter. Their meeting instantly sparks a torrid, exhilarating love.
Evening enchantments have nurtured two powerful romances, with perfect strangers, but for Nellie and Joe wartime infatuations create internal conflict. In the 1940s, interracial relationships were almost entirely frowned upon. Once sobriety sets in, Nellie and Joe realize these relationships won’t be accepted in American society. The gut-wrenching “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” laments the realization of how far from home Joe and Nellie really are, dreading the thought that their lovers won’t fit into their highly prejudicial families back home.
Keep in mind that, in 1949, the subject of interracial marriage was unpopular and lay well ahead of any social advances of the time. To exemplify this, some of South Pacific's powerful investors threatened to withdraw funding if the storylines involving Cable’s affair with Liat, and Emile’s bi-racial children weren’t eliminated. Michener gave full credit to Oscar Hammerstein, who stood firm on his demand that those controversial scenes remain.
Moving beyond the intertwined themes of war and interracial relationships, South Pacific's superior music score stands as one of Broadway's best. “Younger Than Springtime,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “Bali H’ai,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right out of My Hair,” and “Some Enchanted Evening” are all classics. Contributing to the original production were landmark performances by Italian baritone Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, perhaps Broadway’s greatest leading lady.
A dynamic singer/dancer, Mary Virginia Martin escaped to Hollywood from Weatherford, Texas in the mid-1930s. Fearless in auditions, she landed in front of Hammerstein singing his “Indian Love Call.” Oscar's word was enough to get her a job in New York with another legend, Cole Porter. Her rendition of Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” was a sensation, and she never again looked for work. Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed that Martin, fresh from touring as Annie Oakley in Irving Berliln’s Annie Get Your Gun, personified Nellie Forbush. Her legendary shadow grew taller with Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music (1959), I Do! I Do! (1966), and her signature role as Peter Pan (1954) the first live television broadcast of a Broadway musical (1955).
Difficult choices must be made in the final scenes. Cable, Emile, and Nellie all come to a painful tipping point where destiny can’t be delayed, facing the future with clear minds and brave hearts. Modern audiences are still uplifted by this play more than six decades later. We're reminded of how far we’ve advanced, comparatively, as a society. South Pacific helps illustrate how we got here from there.