By Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
James A. Michener's Navy stint in the Solomon Islands during World War II produced a volume of stories, Tales of the South Pacific. When Michener returned to America and the book was published (1947), he received a Pulitzer Prize. Once the rights to the entire text were purchased for Rodgers and Hammerstein, the pair – after very careful consideration – finally settled on two stories to adapt: "Our Heroine" emphasized the attraction between an American nurse and a Frenchman, "Fo' Dolla" the romance of a Polynesian girl and a young American officer.
Joshua Logan, who had originally brought Tales to R&H's attention, collaborated with Hammerstein on the musical's book and directed the production. When it came time to cast it, the team chose their leading man first – the great bass Ezio Pinza. Having ended his 34-year operatic career in 1948, Pinza was free to make his Broadway debut portraying Émile de Becque. The creators and producers admitted that the singer's English diction was problematic, but they were confident that his magnificent voice and presence would ensure success.
Although Mary Martin, one of Broadway's favorite stars, was born to play Nellie Forbush, she was initially nervous when told that she would be partnering the legendary Pinza. Rodgers responded sensitively to her concern: In "Twin Soliloquies" and the final reprise of "Some Enchanted Evening" the two characters sang lines following each other, but they never actually sang together anywhere in the show. Despite the requirement of washing her hair onstage 28 times a week, Nellie would ultimately prove to be Martin's favorite role. She also deeply admired Pinza, describing him after his death as "the most electric human being I have ever appeared with onstage."
The Logan/Hammerstein book unfolds on two South Pacific islands, with the chorus playing Navy men and military nurses. Émile, a French planter, lives on one of the islands with his two children, whose mother, now dead, had been Polynesian. Nellie, a lively nurse from Arkansas, is attracted to the courtly, middle-aged Émile. When he proposes marriage, however, his previous relationship with a Polynesian awakens feelings of racial prejudice in Nellie that she is powerless to combat. Meanwhile, the wily Bloody Mary lures sailors to the island where she lives, Bali Ha'i, with promises that they will fulfill their dreams there. On Bali Ha'i Lt. Joseph Cable falls in love with Liat, Bloody Mary's daughter. Prejudice again interferes: Cable enrages Bloody Mary with his awkward confession that he cannot marry an Asian. When the lieutenant is asked to lead a dangerous mission to another island, Émile (who at this point doesn't care whether he lives or dies) agrees to accompany him. Cable is killed but Émile returns, discovering that Nellie's true feelings for him have conquered her prejudice.
Martin's Broadway-style vocalism and Pinza's operatic sound ensured contrast and variety in the score. The heroine's songs show her to be an open book, beginning with her view of herself as a "cockeyed optimist"; continuing with her bouncy announcement to her friends that she will "wash that man right outta my hair"; and finally reaching the soaring realization that "I'm in love with a wonderful guy." In an amusing diversion, she stages an entertainment for the seabees, donning a sailor's uniform to woo a sailor dressed in a grass skirt ("Honey Bun"). Émile has two dignified, exceptionally affecting solos, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine," each requiring the ultimate in flowing, velvety tone.
The male chorus gets Broadway's most testosterone-laden number ever, "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." They also sing a roughly affectionate song to Bloody Mary, who is given two very different contralto solos: "Bali Ha'i," a hypnotic description of her island; and "Happy Talk," in which she helps Cable "talk" to Liat through gesture. Cable, a role poised between tenor and baritone, sings the ecstatic "Younger than Springtime" to Liat. His other solo, "Carefully Taught," makes clear his bitter acceptance of the fact that prejudice is learned, not innate. This song excited the only major controversy in South Pacific; it discomfited many audience members and critics, and the creative team was pressured to cut it. They knew, of course, that "Carefully Taught" was crucial to the show's dramatic content. The song was retained, making an enduring impression on more enlightened theatergoers.
The 1949 opening night was rapturously received. Tickets became prized possessions, and seeing the show became a rite of passage. Mary Martin commented years later, "People came to South Pacific to get married, to get divorced, to get back together again." It earned many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and nine Tonys. The 1958 film version was respectable at best, with Joshua Logan directing Rosanno Brazzi (dubbed by Metropolitan Opera bass Giorgio Tozzi), Mitzi Gaynor, John Kerr, and the original Bloody Mary, Juanita Hall.
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