The Pitch: In his book, In the Space of a Song, Richard Dyer describes South Pacific's "You've Got to Be Taught" as a song "about racism as indoctrination" and "aberrant," in that it isn't about happiness. What's your take on South Pacific's race and gender politics?
Paul Laird: South Pacific was not the first musical with a serious plot, but it was unusual in the way that it confronted a major issue such as racism in such a direct manner. Other Broadway professionals came to see rehearsals and told Rodgers and Hammerstein that “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” needed to be cut from the show, but both composer and lyricist answered something to the effect of that is why they wrote the show. Before the civil rights movement had really gotten started in the United States (yes, Jackie Robinson broke the major league baseball color line in 1947, but Rosa Parks’ and Martin Luther King’s activities in Montgomery, Alabama, were still several years off), a big-budget American musical — situated in a commercial medium in the center of popular culture — directly confronted American attitudes about race.
The depiction of gender in the show is a mixture of the time it was written and a few more forward-looking attitudes. The men are strong and brave in a war situation, as would be expected, but the female lead Nellie Forbush is a strong character that knows her mind and changes positively, shedding her racism. Bloody Mary is another strong female character, but her daughter, Liat, is very passive. South Pacific shows a very impressive stand against racism for its time, but the inherent attitudes about gender are more predictable.
This show is powerful and entertaining in its own right, but an audience member does need to be ready to understand what about the show was progressive for its time. We have seen many films and shows that involve racism, butSouth Pacific helped write the book on that possibility, so some education of the audience is needed.
Is there something to be gained in viewing this entertainment from the past?
In the case ofSouth Pacific, in addition to what we can learn about American racial attitudes in the 1940s, we can learn a great deal about American involvement in World War II and hear some great hit songs from the period. It is wonderful to remember how good Rodgers and Hammerstein were at what they did!
Why do you think musicals like South Pacific have such lasting appeal?
A show like South Pacific has lasting appeal because it is moving and engrossing. It is based on strong characters from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, and Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted powerful portions of the story into a cohesive narrative. The show also has a very strong musical score with every song helping to tell the story and/or describe characters. This is musical theater at its best, and many respond to it, even in shows over 60 years old.
Are musicals harmed when they're "modernized" or moved outside their original milieu?
Any show that is revived is changed to an extent. South Pacific in this version has not been changed very much from the 1949 original because many of the attitudes expressed in it are progressive for their time, and there are no scenes or songs that might offend today, with the possible exception of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” but it remains in this revival. An interested audience member will want to understand how a show has been altered in revival, but if the updating has been done with care and an eye towards maintaining the show’s integrity, there should be no real harm. The alternative is for there to be no revivals, and that is not acceptable!