South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten

With a topic as fascinating as how Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Logan) converted Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” into the musical South Pacific, the Broadway Legacies series is off to a tantalizing but frustrating start.

In launching the series for the Oxford University Press, editor Geoffrey Block promises that the books will cover “Broadway composers, composer-lyricist teams, choreographers, directors, and other creative artists who have made Broadway one of America’s most celebrated, recognizable, and popular cultural institutions. Other books in the series will be devoted to musicals … that have made a major cultural and artistic impact on the genre.”

Jim Lovensheimer’s “South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten” certainly fits in that classification. The series has already added or announced volumes on lyricist Dorothy Fields, choreographer Agnes de Mille, the team Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Irving Berlin, Charles Strouse, and a show-specific volume on Show Boat. It seems that they are off to a good start.

Block also promises, however, that the volumes will present “original research and new ideas by authors who understand the importance of telling their stories in engaging and accessible prose.” Here, the inaugural volume falls just a bit short.

The prose here is clear, but hardly engaging. Instead it is often heavy on assertion and light on explanation. Also, it reads somewhat like a scholarly work of the “first tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them” school of term papers. Further, the scope of the “original research” seems to be unfortunately truncated, as I’ll explain later on.

Still, a book-length discussion of the origins and development of the deeply held social message of South Pacific, with not only its opposition to racial prejudice but its ability to dramatize the consequences of prejudice in a way that at least attempts to draw its audiences into sympathy with its creator’s views, is a valuable addition to any theatre lovers’ “Theatre Shelf.”

There aren’t many musicals with as potent a message as the one that gave the world “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” The subject of racial prejudice, which is treated with such deeply felt passion, was not an easy topic to tackle in the first few years after World War II. As Lovensheimer says, it was a war waged against patently racist forces on both fronts. But it was fought by our segregated armed forces supported by a home front where prejudice was rife and, indeed, one racial group was interned for the duration.

Over the century since the form of the story-telling book musical that is now known as the “American Musical” first gelled as an alternative to operetta and various forms of music hall vaudeville, most musicals have concentrated on pure entertainment, with or without a central societal viewpoint. The moral precepts reflected in the show were usually a fairly unconscious reflection of the creators‘ views, not a “message” intentionally delivered.

Oscar Hammerstein’s output, however, was often different. Ever since at least Show Boat in 1927 and probably much earlier, his selection of material to musicalize tended to be determined by more than just a sense of how well a story might be told musically and its theatricality, but by the attitude that story would communicate.

As Lovensheimer points out, in Richard Rodgers Hammerstein found a partner who likewise was not adverse to reflecting a social viewpoint in his works and who shared at least an underlying liberal (but not necessarily “left leaning”) value system. Before partnering with Hammerstein, after all, Rodgers had tackled social and political themes in everything from I’d Rather Be Right and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” to the original (pre-Hollywood) Babes in Arms. Lovensheimer also points out that Rodgers returned to the issues of cross-racial romance after the death of Hammerstein when he wrote No Strings for Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley.

When the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein shook up the art form, first with Oklahoma! and then with Carousel, they began to deepen the topics of musicals and to reach for treatments that had more social relevance. Oklahoma! was certainly more than just a musical asking “who will the cowboy take to the dance?” Carousel dealt with spouse abuse. Allegro was an exploration of the impact of the pressures of modern life including the corporate culture later criticized as grey flannel suits pursuing profits.

Lovensheimer puts South Pacific into historical perspective with a discussion of the attitudes of the day and sketches the reasons that James Michener’s book attracted the attention of Rodgers, Hammerstein and director/co-librettist Joshua Logan. He carefully presents the evolution of plot points and characters from Michener’s creation to the musical. The book was a novel without a linear plot presented as a collection of 19 short stories. The musical is built principally on the events and characters from two of those stories, although it pulls details from some of the others.

Central to Lovensheimer’s book is his fifth chapter, the only one he gives a title that verges on the cute: “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Rewritten.” In it he charts the way Hammerstein crafted the cross-racial romance issues of nurse Nellie Forbush’s initial inability to accept expatriate planter Emile de Becque’s earlier marriage to a Polynesian woman and the resulting off-spring, and of Navy Lieutenant (JG) Joe Cable’s crisis of the heart in his love for Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat. He traces the elements that were built into the script and those that were cut as Hammerstein as well as Rodgers struggled to create an entertainment that would be accepted by their audience while, at the same time, retaining the aspect which Rodgers’ pointed out was what drew them to the property in the first place.

Lovensheimer also details the portrayal of gender roles, an aspect that may have been less intentional and more a reflection of unspoken assumptions among the collaborators. He even delves into questions of Bloody Mary’s motivations and suggestions that she was “selling her daughter.”

Much of Lovensheimer’s analysis is a result of his review of Hammerstein’s papers in the Library of Congress including multiple drafts of the script leading up to the start of rehearsal. An important source was Hammerstein’s notes on the novel, something that has not been available to scholars before. It makes his arguments stronger and his assertions more intriguing, and it is clear why the author gives his first thanks in his “acknowledgements” to Mark Horowitz at the Library of Congress who facilitated his access to the uncatalogued material from which he drew.

How, then, he managed to not be able to review Hammerstein’s copy of the novel itself, with its marginal notations, is not explained. That copy had been available to director Trevor Nunn when he was preparing the 2001 London revival of the musical. Lovensheimer’s failure to include references to that key source document and/or to explain at some length why he could not is a key failure of this new book.

Failure or not, the book covers a wide range of fascinating aspects of South Pacific, providing a scene by scene and issue by issue discussion of how this musical came to be.

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