Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Some Enchanted Collaboration: Rodgers & Hammerstein & South Pacific

Their fourth original collaboration, following Oklahoma, Carousel, and Allegro, South Pacific was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on a contemporary story. Prefiguring later successes like The King and I and Flower Drum Song, it was their first show to deal with the “exotic,” and the “culture clash” between east and west. James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947) appeared while World War II was fresh in the country’s consciousness. Tales reads more like a succession of linked short stories than a through-composed narrative. The chapter which first caught the song-writing duo’s attention was the central story, “Fo’ Dolla’”, about the Tonkinese mother and daughter pair of Bloody Mary and Liat, focusing on the latter’s love affair with the young Marine Lieutenant, Joe Cable. Not insignificantly, R & H found this story too closely related to Madama Butterfly, and decided one of the supporting tales “had to be the main story.” “Our Heroine” depicts the relationship of Ensign Nellie Forbush and the French plantation owner, Emile De Becque. R & H retained the love story of Liat and Cable, which allowed for parallel resonances in the libretto and the score. Another brilliant dramatic move was including the buffo character, Luther Billis (who appears in separate stories from those aforementioned) to pair with Bloody Mary.

In the heyday of the “integrated” or “book” musical – where, like its progenitor, opera, the elements of narrative, lyrics, music, staging and scenery are unified to form a “total work of art” – South Pacific was hailed upon its opening “as one of the finest musical plays in the history of American theatre.” Hallmarks of the Rodgers and Hammerstein style are apparent from the striking opening scene, which features no fewer than four memorable numbers: “Dites-moi,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” The lengthy first act is followed by a swiftly-moving closing act, which favors aptly placed reprises of themes over new material. As in the greatest operas, the contributions of Hammerstein and his co-author, Joshua Logan (also the show’s director) are overshadowed by the beauty and efficacy of the composer’s music. Hammerstein himself bowed to his younger colleague's gifts, astutely observing that Rodgers “writes music to depict story and character and is, therefore, himself a dramatist.” In a 1960 article for Opera News magazine, Rodgers wrote about the integrated musicals of his day and made the case that they should be considered “American Operas.” The casting of the Metropolitan Opera basso, Ezio Pinza as De Becque supports this claim. The greatest evidence, however, is found in the scores of Rodgers and his colleagues like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Leonard Bernstein. These “Broadway Operas” feature a signature marriage of European operatic idioms with a distinctly American musical style. That these “golden age” musicals are now the purview of regional opera companies as much as they are a part of the theatre repertoire is a tribute to their staying power, and the creative genius which brought them to life.

South Pacific came to life on Broadway, April 7, 1949, and ran for over five years and 1,925 performances. It was only the second musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With its frank depiction of racial and cultural issues within a contemporary setting, it was ahead of its time. While audiences today may wince at the apparent “political incorrectness” of its language – “there is nothing like a dame” and “help us lick the Japs” stand out – Rodgers’ biographer, Geoffrey Block, leaves the analytical ivory tower of academia to make a cogent point at the conclusion of his comprehensive essay, “World War II, The Musical”:

Musical comedies depict life, not necessarily as it is, but as we wish it. The more we see ourselves, or prefer to see ourselves, as having grown beyond the prejudices, sexism, materialism, or the dramatic or musical style of a previous era, the more difficult it may be to accept that a work, frozen in time, actually seizes a moment and reflects that moment honestly. As we become further removed from a show’s time and place, a musical that captures its moment can become a slave to that moment, despite its universality.

While “Some Enchanted Evening” may be the romantic heart of this beloved musical, “You’ve got to be carefully taught” is it’s soul.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate - / You’ve got to be carefully taught!

As Cable confronts the dissonance of his own prejudice, he holds up the mirror of art to illuminate universal issues which show no signs of aging into obsolescence. To be sure, South Pacific is a musical comedy. But this poignant drama of love, lost and regained - with all its inherent human virtues and failings - make it much more than the sum of its many entertaining parts.