Wednesday, September 28, 2016
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.