Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Last week PBS aired a "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcast of SOUTH PACIFIC.  This show with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, debuted in 1949 and is considered by many to be one of the greatest musicals of all time.   

It was revived on Broadway in 2008 and was initially supposed to be a limited run, but ended up going for two years -- it closed a couple of days ago, on August 22.  The revival won seven Tony Awards when it opened and the original production won ten as well as the Pulitzer Prize.  I watched the broadcast to see what was up, honestly thinking I would be kinda bored, regardless of the number of songs from it that have become classics like "Bali Ha'i", "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair", "Some Enchanted Evening", "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and "Happy Talk".  Well, I was really charmed by it.  I was also unaware of the fact that this show dealt with racism as much as it did.  Pretty ballsy for a musical from the late 40's.

As you may have guessed, the setting is an island in the South Pacific during World War II.  A young Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush, falls for an older Frenchman named Emile de Becque.  I love how in musicals people can fall in love during the course of a two and a half minute song.  Then there's the handsome Lieutenant Cable who arrives on the island to head a mission to try to spy on the Japanese.  He's set up with Liat, the daughter of a Tonkinese "entrepreneur" called "Bloody Mary".  Things go sour though when Nellie finds out that Emile has two children by his Polynesian wife who has since passed.  Then those Little Rock roots come out and she starts to have second thoughts -- just as Lt. Cable has second thoughts about bringing a Tonkinese girl home.  There's a song called "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" where Cable explains to Emile that prejudice is not something you're born with -- it's something you have to learn.  That song may seem a bit ordinary nowadays, but again, ballsy for its time.

Okay, I gotsta tell you about a little part of this show that stuck with me.  In Act 2, they're having a Thanksgiving variety show for the troops, and Nellie Forbush, wearing a sailor suit, sings the catchy "Honey Bun" to Luther Billis, a sailor you come to love who's wearing that iconic coconut bra and grass skirt.  It's a light-hearted happy moment, and everyone's having fun.  Later, near the end of the show, the sh*t hits the fan, the troops are finally able to go on the offensive, and these sailors who you've come to know as a group of swell guys hangin' on the beach, passing the time, waiting for action are now armed with their rifles and dressed in their combat fatigues and helmets.  During a bit of dialogue where the sailors are getting ready to head out, there's this tympani faintly droning out a military rhythm in the background.  A voice over the loudspeaker directs the sailors and nurses to their respective carriers and combat planes as the droning continues.  The troops line up in two rows across the stage marching slowly, taking a step every 4 counts, and then once the loudspeaker instructions are over, everyone, in unison, barely above a whisper start singing, "A hundred and one pounds of fun, that's my little honey bun… get a load of honey bun tonight…"  It's haunting I'm tellin' ya!  I can't believe that that scene was originally staged that way -- seems like a more contemporary thing to do.  Regardless, Bartlett Sher, the director of this revival, is an effing genius.  The juxtaposition of the image of this anonymous military unit and that song that hearkens back to a time when they were idle and jovial is very powerful.  Love…

So, here's the point -- I realize it's a bit early for this, but this little nugget of theatre history is coming to the Fabulous Fox Theatre November 9th through the 21st.  Don't miss it.  I'll be there, for those last moments of the show if nothing else.

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