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South Pacific is a musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. The plot draws from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, combining elements of several of the stories in that book. The musical centers on an American nurse stationed at a U.S. Naval base during World War II who falls in love with an expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A second romance concerns a U.S. lieutenant who falls in love with a young Asian woman. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most pointedly in the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.
South Pacific is considered to be one of the greatest Broadway musicals. The musical premiered in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. Several of its songs, including “Bali Ha’i”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Happy Talk”, “Younger than Springtime” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy”, have become popular standards. The Broadway production won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Libretto, and it is the only musical production ever to have won all four Tony Awards for acting. The show was a critical and box office hit and has since enjoyed many successful revivals and tours, spawning a 1958 film and other adaptations. The 2008 Broadway revival was a strong success, winning seven Tonys including Best Musical Revival.
BackgroundStage and film director Joshua Logan, a World War II veteran, read James Michener’s 1947 short story collection Tales of the South Pacific and decided to adapt it. He and producer Leland Hayward purchased the rights from Michener. They asked Rodgers to compose music for the work and Hammerstein to write the libretto; Hayward would produce, and Logan would serve as director and producer. Rodgers and Hammerstein accepted, and they began transforming the short stories “Fo’ Dolla” and “Our Heroine” into a unified tale. Since both stories were serious in tone, Michener agreed to include a third story about Luther Billis, a womanizing sailor. Hammerstein knew very little about the U.S. Navy in World War II or about Nellie’s Southern dialect and culture. Rodgers asked Logan to help Hammerstein write the book, and Logan asked to be credited as co-author. Hammerstein agreed but added, “Of course, it goes without saying that you won’t get anything whatsoever of the author’s royalties.”
Rodgers received a telephone call from Edwin Lester of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. He had signed recently retired Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza for a new musical, but the musical fell through and, according to his contract, Pinza had to be paid $25,000 regardless of whether he actually performed. Lester was searching for a new vehicle for Pinza, and Rodgers and Hammerstein eagerly signed the singer to play Emile de Becque, the male lead. Hammerstein had been particularly inspired by Mary Martin, having seen her wearing a gingham dress in the last scene of One Touch of Venus, and he wanted her to play Nellie Forbush, the female lead. Martin was busy playing Annie Oakley in the touring company of Annie Get Your Gun, but after Rodgers and Hammerstein auditioned three songs, “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Twin Soliloquies”, for Martin and her husband Richard Halliday, she accepted the role. Although Nellie and Emile were already fully developed characters in Michener’s stories, during the creation of South Pacific Rodgers, Hammerstein and Logan began to adapt the roles specifically to the talents of Martin and Pinza, and to tailor the music for their voices.
The musical explores the theme of racial prejudice in several ways. Nellie struggles to accept Emile’s mixed-race children. Another American serviceman, Lieutenant Cable, struggles with the prejudice that he would face if he were to marry an Asian woman. His song about this, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, was criticized as too controversial for the musical stage and called indecent and pro-communist. While the show was on a tour of the Southern United States, lawmakers in Georgia introduced a bill outlawing any entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” One legislator said that “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.” Rodgers and Hammerstein defended their work strongly. James Michener recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.”