As the audience enters the Vivian Beaumont Theater, there’s a huge scrim above the stage with the first paragraph of James Michener’s “Tales Of The South Pacific” superimposed, just hovering in the semi-darkness. As semi-darkness progresses to almost-complete darkness, the orchestra begins to play the achingly familiar overture to this Pulitzer-prize winning 1949 musical, and the stage rolls away, revealing an orchestra that will seem huge by today’s meager Broadway standards. And yet, there they are, a FULL orchestra pit, 35 pieces, playing one of the most beautiful overtures ever written, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, to one of the most curiously overlooked American musicals (at least on Broadway) in American musical history. Oh yes, I’m sure you’ve seen a production somewhere along the line, whether it be in the high school gymnasium or the church basement, but this current production of “South Pacific” is the first Broadway revival of this American masterpiece since the original production in 1949. And to celebrate this fact, Lincoln Center Theatre has assembled a production team who’s gotten this musical spectacularly right in every conceivable way. And you’d have to be out of your senses to miss it. “South Pacific” is back on Broadway, a little further uptown from where it started, and it seems as fresh and angry as it must have been back in post-World War II America, circa 1949.
“South Pacific” was the first stage show I ever saw. It was the early 60’s, and a touring production took over my grammar school gym for two nights only. It was just me and my mother that night, and she’d warned me to behave or she was taking me right home. She needn’t have worried. There are memories we carry from childhood that are burned into our brains; memories we should have been too young to store, but are there nonetheless, because they are special, meaningful, they defy logic because they define us. My first stage show was one of those. I was transfixed, I was hooked-I listened to my first original cast album the next day. I sat there that night in wondrous bliss-I had never seen such things. I mean, that nurse was using REAL WATER to wash that guy right outta her hair! You could hear real airplane sounds all over the gym. The woman in front of me started crying when they announced somebody was dead! THIS STUFF WAS COOL!
Well, 46 years later, it all came flooding back when that stage at the Beaumont rolled away and that orchestra started playing that score. It was like seeing an old friend you’d been separated from when you were a kid. And then I looked around and noticed everybody looked like that. Somehow, I’d managed first row seats, so I could see a lot of folks if I turned around. And they all looked like they were seeing old friends they’d been away from for too long.
By this time, most of us know the story of “South Pacific”, whether it be from all those church basements, or that hideously conceived movie version with its creepy primary colored tinting process that had always made it unwatchable as far as I was concerned. Ensign Nellie Forbush is stationed on a Pacific Island during WWII and falls in love with a French plantation owner with a somewhat suspicious background. The Seabees, led by Luther Billis, are a conniving, tawdry buncha guys who lust after women and talk salty. There’s a native named Bloody Mary who’s trying to get her kid hitched to an American soldier. And the Japanese are right around the corner.
What you may not remember is the theme of racism woven so carefully and menacingly into the plot. How Nellie recoils in horror when she discovers her Frenchman has two native children from his marriage to an Islander years before. Horrors, Nellie even uses the word “colored” to describe them at one point, which is interesting because the word was excised from the original production, and has been restored to the text here. How the American officer, Cable, tosses aside Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter because the folks back in Philadelphia would never accept it. At one point, Nellie tries to defend herself by claiming she was born with her racism, to which Cable responds with a pointed “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most bitter and lacerating tunes. And by the way, those Seabees aren’t played just for laughs anymore-these are roughhousing, scared young men; hard drinkers, and lonely for those they left behind back home. Danny Burstein’s portrayal of their leader, Luther, is particularly gratifying to observe, because he doesn’t play him as a leacherous slob like I’ve always remembered him, but as a wheeler dealer desperate for human contact-in fact, there’s a curious subtext in his relationship with Nellie I was never aware of before. He actually seems to have a “thing” for her.
The cast is glorious. Kelli O’Hara, so wonderful recently in “Light In The Piazza” and “The Pajama Game”, is revelatory here-bringing up waves of hurt and honest emotion, and not being afraid to embrace the ugly side of Nellie as well. Opera stalwart Paulo Szot is perfection as the Frenchman Emile-his “This Nearly Was Mine” stopped the show in its tracks with its primal howl of pain. Again, Danny Burstein nearly steals the show, and there’s beautiful work from Matthew Morrison and Loretta Ables Sayre as well. But the real star here is director Bartlett Sher. He’s been one of my favorite directors for some time, but this is the crowning achievement of his career so far-to take material that everyone thinks they know so well and to make it feel new and different-to make you respond in ways you thought you wouldn’t. That is Sher’s gift. And it’s a gift we can all happily share.
There are a number of revivals of every stripe to be enjoyed throughout the city right now; both straight plays and musicals, but without a doubt, this is the only one currently running that manages to prove itself as timeless. And, in the process, it manages to shed new light on its origins as well. I think the original creators would be both proud and delighted.