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A NEW CHALLENGE FOR TWO NOT-SO-NEW TALENTS
By Thomas Hischak

The year 1949 found Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein at a crossroads in their collaboration. They had enjoyed outstanding success together with "Oklahoma!" (1943) and "Carousel" (1945) on stage and with STATE FAIR (1945) on the screen, but they had stumbled awkwardly with "Allegro" (1947) on Broadway. The ambitious, experimental work had much to recommend it, but Hammerstein's original book was too scattered to satisfy audiences and critics. The team needed to reestablish their reputation as Broadway's premiere creators of the musical play. James Michener's series of World War II stories titled "Tales of the South Pacific" seemed like an ideal vehicle, rich with distinctive characters, exotic locales, and potent themes. Yet "South Pacific" would break away from the established Rodgers and Hammerstein model in many ways.

First of all, the team was known for re-creating Americana on stage. These tales were set in a foreign land and, while most of the characters were American, they were reacting to situations that were far from homespun. Second, Hammerstein was an expert at dramatizing novels and plays for the musical stage, but Michener's book consisted of short stories, not one of which could sustain a full-length musical drama by itself. But Hammerstein rose to the occasion and, working closely with co-librettist and director Joshua Logan, took characters and plots from three of the stories and fashioned them into a coherent, unified libretto. Another anomaly about "South Pacific" is that it was the first (and one of the few) Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals written for established stars. Although their previous Broadway efforts had helped launch the careers of Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm, John Raitt, and Lisa Kirk, those earlier musicals featured no names above the title. The musical itself was the star. But "South Pacific" was written and composed with Broadway belter Mary Martin and Metropolitan Opera bass Ezio Pinza specifically in mind. The pairing of two such voices was so unusual in Broadway tradition that the writers wisely kept the two stars from singing simultaneously until close to the end of the first act, figuring that audiences would accept the combination once they were involved with the stars as characters and not merely as singers. The captivating duet "Twin Soliloquies" early in the show is simply that: two separate solos that alternate, giving the illusion of a rhapsodic operetta duet without any vocal overlapping.

But of all the challenges facing Rodgers and Hammerstein in their new venture, the most daunting was theme. Racial prejudice had only rarely been the issue in a Broadway musical. Jerome Kern's and Hammerstein's "Show Boat" (1927) evoked the plight of African Americans in the post-Civil War South, the Gershwins tackled similar themes in "Porgy and Bess" (1935), and E. Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy, and associates took on slavery and segregation in their mocking Civil War musical "Bloomer Girl" (1944) and their satiric fantasy "Finian's Rainbow" (1947). While the ache of prejudice and oppression served as the background for these musicals, it was central in "South Pacific." Consider the fact that this was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with no villain of any kind. The world is at war and there is conflict all around, but one cannot say that the real enemy in "South Pacific" is the Japanese military. No character in the musical attempts to harm, hinder, or provoke any other character. Yet, all dramas need a protagonist and an antagonist. "South Pacific" is no exception, but the conflicts in this musical are internal. The deep-seated prejudice that lies within nurse Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Joe Cable provide the complications. These two are threatened by no one but their own prejudices, fears, and traditional way of thinking. "South Pacific" is the first (and remains one of the very few) musicals to draw its emotional power not merely from a love story, but from a cruel, unbending inner doubt.



Top banner photos: Jason Danieley; Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell (photo by Joe Sinnott); and singers in the Women's Chorus.

Jason Danieley, Lillias White, and Renita Croney (photo by Joe Sinnott)

Jason Danieley, Lillias White, and Renita Croney (photo by Joe Sinnott).

Alec Baldwin as Luther Billis (photo by Joe Sinnott).

Alec Baldwin as Luther Billis (photo by Joe Sinnott).

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