South Pacific: one of the most famous musicals of all time – and one of the most controversial.
One might expect a 1949 musical set in the South Pacific to be racially problematic – and, sure, 7 decades later, one might take issue with it representation of race – but it was established, in part, to stand up to racism.
The musical is based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific – combining several of those stories. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein believed they could write a musical based on Michener’s work that would be financially successful and, at the same time, send a strong progressive message on racism.
The plot centres on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. Marine lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman, explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart.
The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Supporting characters, including a comic petty officer and the Tonkinese girl’s mother, help to tie the stories together.
Because he lacked military knowledge, Hammerstein had difficulty writing that part of the script; the director of the original production, Logan, assisted him and received credit as co-writer of the book.
After they signed Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin as the leads, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote several of the songs with the particular talents of their stars in mind. Several of the musical’s songs have become popular standards: ‘Bali Ha’i’, ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame’, ‘Happy Talk’, ‘Younger Than Springtime’, and ‘I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy’.
The original Broadway production enjoyed immense critical and box-office success, became the second-longest running Broadway musical to that point (behind Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earlier Oklahoma! (1943)), and has remained popular ever since. The piece even won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. However, its racial theme provoked controversy (especially in the southern US), for which its authors were unapologetic.
The production won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Libretto, and it is the only musical production to win Tony Awards in all four acting categories. Its original cast album was the bestselling record of the 1940s, and other recordings of the show have also been popular. The show has enjoyed many successful revivals and tours, spawning a 1958 film and television adaptations. The 2008 Broadway revival, a critical success, ran for 996 performances and won seven Tonys, including Best Musical Revival.
Chichester Festival Theatre’s critically acclaimed, landmark production of South Pacific is set to embark on a major UK and Ireland tour. Like Sister Act, which recently played at the Palace Theatre, South Pacific is playing in Manchester ahead of a run in London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre) – before touring the UK and Ireland.
The tour stars Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck, who starred in the Chichester Festival Theatre production.
Onscreen, Ovenden is known for Foyle’s War, The Royal, Smash, Downton Abbey, Persons of Interest, Knightfall, The Crown, Bridgerton, and Adult Material. Onstage, he is known, in part, for being in the original productions of Marguerite and Finding Neverland. He has previously starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s aforementioned Oklahoma! – as well as Hammerstein and Jermone Kern’s Show Boat.
Beck is known for playing lead roles in notable musicals, such as Miss Honey in Matilda, Glinda in Wicked, Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera, and Cosette in Les Mis. She has previously starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music and, like Beck, played a lead role in Hammerstein’s Show Boat (though not the same production).
If you’re unable to get away this summer, not to worry – for South Pacific is coming to Manchester. Coincidentally, it begins its UK tour during a heatwave!
South Pacific plays at Manchester Opera House from 16th until 23rd July, ahead of a month-long residency at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, from 27th July until 28th August. The UK tour resumes in mid-September until mid-November.