By Dennis Polkow
Of all of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, 1949’s “South Pacific” has the distinction of boasting the duo’s most well-known and beloved score. Considered by many to be the most romantic musical ever written, its tale of two star-crossed lovers—each involving American service personnel stationed in an exotic island locale—really struck a deep and resonant chord with postwar America.
And yet, because one lover was a Pacific Islander and the other a widower who had fathered children with a native, “South Pacific” also tackled what was a truly taboo subject matter in its day, one that remains a hot-button issue six decades later: racial prejudice. Although based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific,” which had placed the “n” word on the lips of American nurse Nellie Forbush, R & H were content to change this to “colored,” the politically correct 1940s Caucasian term for any darker race or nationality that wasn’t white or Asian. Even that was too much for 1949, as it turned out, but the duo would not back down.
The Act II song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which had caused trouble from the first New Haven previews of the show, was widely and immensely criticized, even despised. But the song would stay, even if it meant the failure of the show. Even the Navy itself became involved when a lieutenant commander wrote the duo a letter in effect ordering that the song be cut, as if to question R & H’s patriotism if they did not. Oscar Hammerstein II quickly and carefully responded, “I am most anxious to make the point not only that prejudice exists and is a problem, but that its birth lies in teaching and not in the fallacious belief that there are biological, physiological, and mental differences between the races.”
Ironically, the popularity of the show was such that its first national tour made its way right smack into segregated theaters—and not all were in the South—but R & H would have none of it: any theater that wanted “South Pacific” had to integrate and, amazingly, most did. In 1953, however, when the show was playing in Atlanta, the Georgia state legislature actually introduced a bill to denounce “You Have to be Carefully Taught” in an otherwise “fine piece of entertainment” as “interracial propaganda inspired by Moscow.”
Some have seen the controversy as part of why it has taken more than sixty years for a Broadway revival of “South Pacific,” but there are also the demands of the score, which are considerable. Italian bass-baritone Ezio Pinza originated the role of Emile de Becque, and while the show has always been a staple of opera companies, more often than not, show voices have been used in other productions. R & H’s original intentions were to use the best of both of the opera and musical-theater worlds (Mary Martin originated the role of Nellie Forbush) and that is the approach of the current Broadway revival that recently began its national tour and which is coming to the area next week.
American bass-baritone David Pittsinger, a bona fide opera star who just sang the role of Angelotti in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s “Tosca” that was also shown around the country in movie theaters, recently serenaded the media at a luncheon given by the Rosemont Theatre to promote the seven-time Tony Award-winning production, which is touching down—elaborate airplane, ships, full orchestra, chorus, dancers and all—at the suburban venue for Thanksgiving week.
Without a microphone, Pittsinger offered up one of the most sparkling renditions of “Some Enchanted Evening” imaginable, as well as “This Nearly was Mine” as an encore, without the wobble often associated with the fact that aging and retired opera stars have usually taken this role (Pittsinger is 46). The show has immense significance for him, as not only does he center his career in France (the lead character is French) but his marriage and children are interracial as well. If the passion with which Pittsinger not only performed but spoke of the ongoing significance of the show’s message is any indication, this is going to be one hell of a show.
“South Pacific” plays from November 24-29 at the Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont, (800)745-3000, $39.50-$79.50.