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The Muscial Patriot

Rodgers, Hammerstein, Michener and Nostalgia’s Clammy Embrace

by DAVID YEARSLEY

There is no form of entertainment more expert at the manipulation of memory than a Broadway musical. First the overture sets off on its serpentine paths through the listener’s mind, dropping its route-finding breadcrumbs with insouciant precision. For children, whose memories are not yet crowded with the dense understory of musical fragments and non-musical distractions, this quick and seemingly carefree outward journey is easy to retrace over the course of the show as the key songs are heard in full and then reprised. It’s as if Hansel and Gretel were equipped with GPS. So easy is it to find your way home through the adventure of the show mapped out by the overture, that afterwards one is sure that one has traveled the route many times before. This is why a good musical can be worth the considerable investment in tickets: $125 or $75 per seat in the case of the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, enjoyed by me and my gang last weekend. Implanted in the memory, a good show’s tunes and their message will keep on giving, for better or worse, over lifetime.

South Pacific is held to be one of the masterpieces of American musical theatre, even without mentioning the show’s claims to a broader legitimacy as winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950; it received the award two years after James Michener’s collection of stories on which the musical was based, also won a Pulitzer. In spite of the high quality of the music, few of the songs entered the corpus of jazz standards, although “Some Enchanted Evening” did become fodder for a collection of crooners including Al Jolson, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, Art Garfunkel, and the Temptations. The song pushes schlock-diva Barbara Streisand to nearly unprecedented levels of breathy affectation even surpassing those attained by Mantovani’s gushing instrumental version. “Younger than Springtime” was a staple of Oscar Peterson’s repertoire; his jaunty trio reading recorded live at the Theatre de Verdure in Nice, does for cool what Streisand’s “Some Enchanted Evening” does for uncool. The television ad from my own 1970s youth “I’m Gonna Wash That Grey Right Outta My Hair” fools with the original “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”; probably my mother sang Hammerstein’s lyrics to me in response to commercial corruption of the original. However deeply embedded these and other tunes may be in the collective American consciousness, I didn’t know that any of them came from South Pacific.

So as the overture started up I was greeted from the pit by these and other melodies, familiar yet foreign, coming at me like long-lost relatives at a wedding or funeral. For my daughters, and perhaps for my foreign wife, it was all new—memories in the making.

Lincoln Center’s South Pacific basks in a nostalgia of infinite regression. As a revival it spawns fond memories of the first production put on soon after World War II. The revival premiered about a year ago and in the meantime took home a boatload of Tony Awards. Many wistful exchanges could be heard in the big rectangular lobby before the show and at intermission about the original, when the predominately gray-haired audience was then young and in New York — two good things to be. With the Cold War underway, the show must have offered both a much-needed tropical warmth and the certain prospect of clear victory. In spite of the distant threat of death and disappointment hovering over the story, this is an optimistic tale in which love mostly triumphs over both war and prejudice. One could imagine a darker vision of the 1940s and 1950s in the South Pacific, as radioactive dust from America’s nuclear tests settled the islands, but don’t look for Bikini Atoll: the Musical to find major financial backing from Broadway’s financiers.

With the American war-effort stalled on this Micronesian island the musical can offer a still more primal nostalgia for the state of nature that these natives, more conjured than actually seen, are made to represent. The mildly risqué and hugely clever romp, “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” is driven by the sex-starved humor of the Seabees. Their physical needs could be sated as easily on shore-leave in San Diego as among the native women in the Solomon Islands, but the next song “Bali Ha’i’” invites us and them to far more alluring possibilities with the Orientalist chromatic turns and enchanting clarinet beckonings of its introduction. These cheap, but effective, musical tricks promise timeless, exotic hedonism on the nearby, but off-limits, island of Bali Ha’i. The number is sung by Bloody Mary, a comic but ultimately forlorn, character played in the Lincoln Center production by Loretta Ables Sayre. She gave Mary shrill defiance when engaged in her hectoring hijinx, but a fateful resignation seeps through her evocative but resilient singing voice.

Even the upbeat Pidgeon English of her “Happy Talk” belies a mournful, desperate interior that would allow her to act as procuress for her own daughter, who Bloody Mary brings together with the hard-boiled, and later malaria-addled, Lieutenant Cable. He’s a Princeton man headed back to a job in the family firm and a fiancée on Philadelphia’s Main Line if he survives the war. He doesn’t. Before his demise, Cable registers his own dread of that return to conformity with the self-styled Arkansas hick Nellie in “My Girl Back Home.” When Cable appears unready to give all that up for lasting commitment — as opposed to simply carefree sex on the South Pacific sand — Bloody Mary says she’ll flog her daughter off to the higher bidder, a French colonial planter. The problem is solved when the daring lieutenant dies in the line of duty on a commando mission on a Japanese held island.

The central love story, however, takes place between Nellie from Little Rock and the sophisticated Frenchman, Emile. With his trimmed moustache and alternate outfits of leather riding boots, knickers, suspenders, red shirt, and neckerchief or colonial cocktails linens, the dashing fellow ultimately proves irresistible to Nellie, done by Laura Osnes, who got all she could out of the sunny part, darkened by a few racist clouds. Her biological clock ticking loudly, Nellie ultimately triumphs over her own prejudice, which, she claims, is directed not Emile’s half-Polynesian children, but against the repellent idea of him coupling with his late native wife. Emile stands his ground and refuses to apologize for the Arkansan crime of miscegenation.

But with Emile off on that the same perilous mission that will kill Cable, Nellie gives us the second reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” late in the second of the shows’ two acts: the nostalgic tropic breezes swirling back on themselves before we’ve even left the theatre for the evening. We’ve had the tune presaged in the overture, then delivered and reprised in the first act, and here recalled yet again by Nellie as a way of showing that she will indeed marry Emile and renounce her racist views should he come back safe and sound.

She returns to his plantation mansion, where he swept her off her feet, and tells Emile’s brown-skinned children she “loves them very much.” As she does so the orchestra undergirds her declaration with the strains of “Some Enchanted Evening” presaging her husband-to-be’s imminent return. At least four times reprised over the course of the show, the song is there to stay in the collective memory of the audience.

At the Tony Awards Harry Connick, Jr., who himself played the part of Cable in the 2001 t.v. remake of the musical, praised the story for its “hopeful message and utopian vision of a mixed of American family, one as relevant today as it was sixty years ago when the show premiered.” However brave the confrontation with racism was in 1950, the sight of a rich colonial adventurer, an American ingénue, and two brown-skinned kiddies clasping hands around a soup tureen as the curtain falls seems about as relevant as a soup tureen on a South Pacific island.

Still, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing. On the drive back to Ithaca from the big city, the girls were indeed singing “Some Enchanted Evening” hamming up the super-suave accent of Brazilian Paulo Szot’s Emile. But so far it is not the pre-programmed nostalgia of being swept off one’s feet by a Frenchman with a resonant bass voice that has captured their imaginations. Back home they were rollerblading up and down the street every afternoon singing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.” No tickets are too expensive for that vital life lesson.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu