Why they sobbed at ‘South Pacific’, and why we see only corn

PBS showed a live telecast of the Broadway revival of South Pacific tonight as the show prepares to close. I saw this production, which opened two years ago, for the first time last Tuesday, and I liked it so much I made sure to watch it again tonight. I know there are a lot of people who roll their eyes, thinking that it’s just another fuddy-duddy, old-style showtune cheese plate.

But that’s truly unfair. It was a product of a different time, and we are all just tourists to that time. That’s why we don’t understand it. It’s not corn. It’s culture shock.

P.T.S.D in the S.P.

To understand any piece of popular entertainment, you have to understand the society that produced it. And to understand South Pacific, you have to understand two things: the Pacific military theatre of World War Two and its reverberations in American culture in 1949, when the show premiered at the Majestic Theatre, where The Phantom of the Opera is now.

I could write an entire book on this topic. But start with this: In 1949, the people sitting through the theatre had only recently gotten through the war. By the opening strains of the overture, I have read, many of them began sobbing. The memories flooded back both for servicemen and the families who had stood by them. It was far too close to them and brought up the most visceral emotions a human can confront. Many of them had fought in the Pacific, which made the miseries of Europe look pale in comparison. There’s no way to exaggerate what the Pacific battles were like: the gore, the mental and physical torture, the fearful waiting, the doomed sense of being trapped, hemmed in by encroaching killers.

In Italy, a G.I. stood a chance of hiding in the forests. On the ocean, though when torpedos struck your submarine or your Navy ship — the men in South Pacific are mostly SeaBees, charged with building airstrips and the like on newly taken islands — there was nothing for you but a vast sea with sharks beneath and Japanese planes and blistering sun above. The islands were rigged with explosives and snipers’ nests. There was not enough water, nor reliable supply routes for food. There was disease, there was the stench of rot. And above all, there was the feeling of being absolutely trapped, and of waiting for your eventual doom. When one island was gained, usually with an unspeakable loss of life, the men packed up to another island where it began again. It was because of the deadening accumulation of Pacific battles that America felt it had no choice but to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to end it completely.

That was the real South Pacific, and that is the information that every single American carried heavily in their minds when they attended the show. So the wallop that South Pacific packs came from what Rodgers and Hammerstein were not saying. The dissection of racism  in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” has been exhaustively discussed because racism became the United States’ obsessive issue in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s a reason the musical was only the second to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which back then meant something, and that song certainly played a major part.

The original window card

But there are other, less explicit messages, and America’s post-war, Hawaii-fed style obsession with anything Polynesian may have overshadowed many of them. Largest of them, in my mind, is that at the end of the show, everyone marking time on that island (which is unnamed in the script) is finally called up to board ships and go fight the Japanese. Students of history, and modern audiences who paid attention to the giant campaign map onstage, noticed how close the base was to the island of Guadalcanal. So when the SeaBeas, pilots, and nurses march offstage at the end of the show, they are not going to dance a jig and kiss each other in Times Square. They are going to one of the most savage campaigns in the war: 29 ships lost, 7,100 killed. To give a clue of how brutal it was, the Japanese took only 4 prisoners. These characters are going to die. People in 1949 knew that all too well, because they probably loved people who suffered over the six months in Gudalcanal.

That includes our reckless Luther Billis, whose unspoken love for Nellie Forbush has been denied — the surest sign of a tragic hero, literarily speaking. Many of those young men died in the dirt without having ever known love. Knowing that, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” becomes, to me, a heartwrenching keen. The Lincoln Center production captures this eerie truth without saying it. There are no words on the page for it because the original writers didn’t need to say it. Instead, the company, marching in battle fatigues, reprises “Honey Bun” with a distant, almost lethargic softness. They are already dead. The song they choose to sing, as they go to their torturous deaths (or at the very least, life-changing pain), is, intentionally, the silliest one in the show, and it makes us realize that up until now, they have been teasing each other because they know, deep down, a truth they cannot openly discuss. Their island was not a paradise after all. They’re marching to their likely ends, under the scorching sun. The audience knew it, which was what made the preceding frivolity so beautiful and so poignant.

It’s not just the leads whose unspoken stories would have wrenched viewers in 1949: Bloody Mary, who seems at first like mere comic relief, a Tonkinese Stepin Fetchit, in fact schemes to prostitute her own daughter so they can escape “paradise” and cash in on the American Dream. The character of Liat is so eager to subjugate herself for the hallowed American, Lt. Cable, that she never speaks. Her entire character, then, is an embodiment of hungry desperation for American wealth. Former Navy seamen would have met many such people, living stranded on their islands, during their own military waiting games. Thirty years later, in Vietnam, they’d discard women like them again for the same reasons, abandoning them rather than fitting them into the jigsaw of their consumerist/racist lives back home. (For more on that, see Miss Saigon.)

Late in the second act, Luther Billis tries selling some medicine to one SeaBee, who rejects the transaction because the pills are actually standard issue. A moment later, Billis tries the same sale on a nurse, who tells him that the pills are junk and officers use something else now. It’s a subtle complaint of the military power structure, and the feeling that enlisted men were cannon fodder, that is lost on most modern audiences.

"Here am I, your special island": Guadalcanal, where Billis & co. ended up

Nellie Forbush’s change of heart about Emile de Becque’s dead Polynesian wife might seem undeveloped by Hammerstein’s and Joshua Logan’s script. First she’s opposed to marrying him, and suddenly she’s wishing him back. But every audience member in 1949 noticed the critical moment. They saw what she had just gone through: She hears about the death of an airman friend, which causes her to envision the death of her love. Every person in America had lost someone they knew in World War Two, and everyone knew the power of personal transformation, the rueful sense of lives never lived, that the experience brought to them.

The audience knew why Nellie had changed: She had brushed near death, as had nearly every living person on the planet. And so the audience wept.

If someone had written a masterpiece about 9/11 in 2008, we might have a slight sense of how they felt in 1949. But even that wouldn’t compare, since so few of us actually lost loved ones in that attack. There are many things about 9/11 that we still find too painful to describe, and images we collectively agree not to show — and because we are all well aware of the dark nuances of what happened, we wouldn’t have to anyway. R&H felt confident skirting the shadows, too. The word “Japanese” is barely spoken in South Pacific.

Nellie, in the end, chooses to stay on the island with Emile. Turned off by her own shallowness, which was bred by American culture, she decides to isolate with her Frenchman and adoptive children. Think about that in 1949. Most of the servicemen came home. She stayed. She didn’t come back to America because she found something more real. Can you imagine what a bittersweet message that was, coming off the fervent patriotism whipped up during the War Years? It was both a rejection of the United States and and embrace of the values we’ve always assumed we held dear, but may actually not.

I had only seen one other production of this before last week, and in it, Robert Goulet, playing de Becque,  strutted around the stage like Ron Burgundy. It was a bad show. South Pacific is often done poorly because it’s not understood, and it’s not understood because Rodgers and Hammerstein understood their audience so well, and left the most important undertones off the page.

I’m always struck about how self-centered we are about our entertainment. We forget everything always comes from its time, and seeing something made for another generation ideally involves the same mental preparation you’d make when traveling to another country. It’s culture shock. It’s a form of travel. And to navigate your way, you must always adjust what you think you know — and never assume you know more than the people in the past. They knew. They just didn’t have to discuss it.

Danny Burstein and a pre-'Glee' Matthew Morrison, in the revival's original cast, 2008

31 Responses to “Why they sobbed at ‘South Pacific’, and why we see only corn”

  1. R NeWell DeWitt

    Excellent dissection, Jason… R&H are applauding from beyond, because finally the show is getting its real telling… distance allows that somehow. Too many of us have either been in or seen such horrible productions, that jaded theatre folk dismiss it. My HS for one actually cut ‘carefully taught’ because the local school board wouldn’t allow us to talk about racism…even though us lily white southerners had to put on light egyptian for the polynesians, and my chorus teacher felt she had to cast a freckled, red headed Emile because he was a senior… To me this is the definitive “SP”… and your commentary the definitive and concise accompaniment. I hope all High School, community, and regional theatres now will throw out the encio pinza flick, ditch the Mary Martin cutie pie Nellie, (though we love her, RIP) and use this production as the show’s bible… and your post as the intro for their shows. kudos. I wish your post had a share button… (that bali hai drop was unreal, and the map… genius…) Thanks for your insight… and heart.

  2. Jason Cochran

    Thank you SO much for saying that! I can go to bed with a giant head now. (And there is a share button! Look at the bottom.)

  3. Jennifer

    Beautiful! Thank you so much! This article should be required reading for anyone producing, directing, performing, or seeing “South Pacific.” I am NOT a student of history and have had a prejudicial attitude against this show for many years. That said, my college did a lovely production featuring the most heartbreaking scene between Bloody Mary, Liat, and Cable. They completely got it.

  4. Karen Lopez

    My high school also cut “Carefully Taught” from our production, as they deemed it “offensive”. This was also the same school that used black face paint for East Side Story. Blackface was fine, but singing for 20 seconds about tolerance wasn’t.

    I very much enjoyed this post. Goosebumps and an even better appreciation for South Pacific. Thanks.

  5. Michael Young

    Your photo illustrating “Your special island…” Those are 1st Division U.S. Marines, not Navy Seabees, and “Japanese jets” overhead? Give me a break…stick with musical theatre and leave history to those who know! South Pacific evokes nothing of the real horror that was the Pacific Theatre.

    • Jason Cochran

      My dear, angry Mr. Young, you are being as imprecise as you accuse me of being: South Pacific did indeed “evoke” the real horror of the Pacific Theatre. One of the main characters even contracts malaria and then dies of wounds. It didn’t strongly depict it, though, which is probably the word you meant. For my part, although Japanese “planes” would be more precise (I have amended), SeaBees would indeed have wound up on those islands at some point because one of their primary roles was to build airfields, create roads, and so on. As you are well aware as a military expert (and I suspect you know first-hand what you’re talking about), they were one of the primary grounds crews for the operations. They are not in that photograph, nor do I say they are. I say they evntually saw that island, because they did. As for your opinion of my work, you wouldn’t be the first to shrug, but you are one of the rare ones to lash out in a public forum.

  6. kurt henning

    “It’s not corn. It’s culture shock.” Love it! I have always been a huge fan of R&H, and have never bought into the almost cliche jaded attitude that so many of my fellow thespians choose to adopt. I get it. I wish everyone did! Thanks for putting into words what I have always felt!

  7. Jean Goldberg

    Previous to seing South Pacific last year, the last time that I heard “You’ve Got to Be Caredfully Taught” was at an entertainment industry (primarily) concert given by Mandy Pitinkin. I will never forget it as the concert was the evening of Sept 10 and the next day the airplanes came and the towers fell.
    A dated song…I don’t think so.
    Jason, I really enjoyed your analysis of the time period and the show. Something that makes very much sense, but which we tend to forget.

  8. Jim V

    With so much ego driven drivel on the web, this analysis is a breath of fresh air. I saw Mary Martin in her version and this as well. Truly you nailed it. You belie the claim that you have to have been there to understand it.

    • Jason Cochran

      I couldn’t agree more about the “ego driven drivel” that dominates the Web, Jim, and I couldn’t be more pleased and humbled about what you wrote about my post. Thank you.

  9. Emily R

    Thanks so much for writing this Jason, and for linking it to your Scottsboro Boys post (which is how I’ve found it). I’m currently at drama school in the UK and find myself continually trying to explain my admiration and respect for musical theater, and the powerful place it can have within the cultural landscape. I often find myself referencing this show (and this production) as one of the best examples of that, citing many of the reasons you so eloquently expound upon. If you find yourself in Scotland and want to help me convince some people, I’d love the support!

  10. Rosie

    Thanks for this! I can’t wait to revisit South Pacific again. I remember being disgusted by the Bloody Mary subplot, but I didn’t realize what was really going on.

  11. Effie Dee

    I love this. I’ve always felt such a heartache for this film and it’s nice to see it written down so I can really understand why.
    I got to your site because of your essay about dirty ol Oklahoma! (My all time fave tied with seven brides)
    I really have enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I struggle to find people to talk to about musicals, folks my age just make fun of them.

  12. Linda A Johnson

    When I first saw this film when it first came out, i was an older teenager and very naive. I had heard of the horror of the South Pacific War arena by my uncle who was there, but in the navy. I did enjoy the musical numbers. I knew the men were waiting to be sent into action and thinking about girls back home or girls in general as film and tunes related this. It was a great movie and did show the horrors of war with death of the Lt. Cable. My mother saw film the following week and was appalled that Bloody Mary gave her daughter to the Lt. as a prize for his cooperation or whatever. I said I was naive, for in my mind the only thought that when left alone the pair probably only kissed and talked! I thought the message of ‘You Have to be Carefully Taught’ was very true however. Thank you for your discussion of the positives and negatives of the film. I guess there were negatives, mostly positives. though, and I agree.

  13. Wendy Kupferman

    This is brilliant, Jason Cochran! It is such a relief to have someone who understands the messages Rodgers and Hammerstein were actually telling through “South Pacific” in the context of when and where it was written. The songs we’ve treasured for so long, and the story and characters, bizarrely interpreted by a narcissistic culture or so long, deserve the truer more insightful treatment the Lincoln Center production demonstrates! In my mind’s eye, I see Rodgers and Hammerstein having one of their many phone calls and speaking joyfully about you, Jason, for once again getting it right!

  14. Lynn Harmon Lumpkin

    SOUTH PACIFIC is set on Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the nation of Vanuatu. The island was the staging ground for the horrible Battle of Tarawa, which was fought in November 1943. The Battle of Guadalcanal was fought earlier from Aug 7, 1942 to Feb 9, 1943. The Battle of Tarawa was called “Operation Galvanic” in real life and “Operation Alligator” in the show. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” was highly controversial and there were threats that, if the song wasn’t removed from the show, the show would be shut down. But Rodgers and Hammerstein risked all by refusing to omit the song for, they said, it was elemental to the reason they wrote the show in the first place. An officer in the Army Air Corps, my father was on Guadalcanal as that battle ended and then was stationed on Espiritu Santo prior to his fighting in the Battle of Tarawa. While there, he met James Michener and the French planter on whom Emile de Becque is based.

    • SRK

      Wow! Thanks, Lynn, for all this information. While the article was very good, your additional information contributed greatly.

  15. Cash Tilton

    Thanks–although I didn’t find Bart Sher’s production at Lincoln Center corny at all. The experience was so intense that I was driven to read Michener’s original “Tales of the South Pacific,” and marvel at how Hammerstein crafted the book to the musical from that source.

  16. SRK

    Thank you for a well-written article. I’ve loved “South Pacific” (among other classics) since I was a small child. Now I love it even more!

  17. Stephen Marmon

    Superb look at this show. Totally agree. Today’s audiences just don’t understand the period it is set in.

  18. Gary Mortimer

    What a great article about one of my very favorite musicals! When I first saw it, I was in boot camp in the Navy down in San Diego I was young and innocent and away from my home town in Iowa. I had dreamed of some day going to Hawaii, but never thought the Navy would take me there. And one of the things they “treated us to” was a bus trip from the base to some theatre where we saw South Pacific. At that time I found it all magical and beautiful but something did make me wonder what they were saying in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”…and frankly I missed what they meant with Bali Hai.
    So now, I love it even more and appreciate what RH were able to do back then with this great musical.
    And I want to see the original movie and the one with Glenn Close and any theatre production.

    Thank you Jason for this wonderful thing you have written for all to see and absorb. I loved this:
    “I’m always struck about how self-centered we are about our entertainment. We forget everything always comes from its time, and seeing something made for another generation ideally involves the same mental preparation you’d make when traveling to another country. It’s culture shock. It’s a form of travel. And to navigate your way, you must always adjust what you think you know — and never assume you know more than the people in the past. They knew. They just didn’t have to discuss it.”

    I am also an actor/singer and love songs that have such amazing lyrics that many people don’t really understand the meanings of them…so I (and others) try to sing/interpret them so the true meaning comes out.

  19. Les Lilly

    Very well written article (even if it’s 7 years old)…write a book about this Jason!