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.
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.
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.
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.