From the opening strains of the overture, when the stage slid back to reveal a 30-piece orchestra, to a moving coda that appeared as a backdrop at the end, I was captivated by Lincoln Center's sumptuous production of South Pacific. I'd watched the 1958 movie and the 2006 concert on DVD, but really, there's nothing like seeing it on stage and hearing all of that glorious music performed live.
This was my first time seeing a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on stage, and it was truly a wonderful experience - funny and moving and tender. Call me as corny as Kansas in August, but I was totally swept up by the songs, by the feeling that I was looking down from my seat in the Vivian Beaumont Theater's loge on another place and time. Even if you've never seen South Pacific, chances are you've heard a verse or two from "Some Enchanted Evening" or "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," or one of its many other memorable songs, at some point in your life.
Plus, I've always had a huge interest in 20th century U.S. history and I've always loved James Michener's super-detailed historical novels. What I was intrigued by in the plot, based on Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific, is that it illuminates the first stirrings of how World War II changed America.
The war gave countless young people their first experiences interacting with other cultures. It brought women into the work force in unprecedented numbers to take the place of men who were overseas. It was also a war in which we were ostensibly fighting against bigotry of Nazi Germany, yet we seemed unable to overcome our own prejudices.
That contradiction, between what we preach and what we practice, is played out in South Pacific's two main plot strands: the love of Lt. Joe Cable, played by Matthew Morrison, for Liat, a beautiful young Polynesian woman, played by Li Jun Li, and the love of Ensign Nellie Forbush, played by Kelli O'Hara, for Frenchman Emile De Beque, (Paulo Szot), who has two half-Polynesian children.
While the rest of America would take decades to catch up, at least South Pacific shows Forbush, a Southerner, and Cable, an upper-class Princeton graduate, questioning their prejudices. In a musical filled with beautiful songs, there is nothing with more relevance than when Cable sings about the origin of our bigotry in "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."
Although we don't actually see any of the horrors of battle or wounded soldiers, Bartlett Sher's direction and Michael Yeargan's scenic design ensure that the war is never far from our thoughts. And I have to give Sher credit for not downplaying the era's racism - for showing the black seamen apart at a time when the military was segregated, and as jarring as a word like "Japs" was to hear, it would have felt phony to change it to the less-offensive "Japanese."
I was also drawn to the giant maps of the South Pacific that dropped down when the action switched to the captain's office. I kept looking for names I recognized, like Guadalcanal. I thought about all the families that had smaller versions clipped from newspapers, reading the unfamiliar names and trying to imagine where their loved ones were, whether they were safe.
I don't think South Pacific is perfect by any means. It was a little unseemly the way Loretta Ables Sayre's Bloody Mary pushed her daughter at Lieutenant Cable. The two of them seem to fall in love very quickly. And Bloody Mary, with her pidgin English, is a caricature.
But I loved the performances, especially O'Hara's. She was sweet and spunky and smart, the type of woman who, if it weren't for the war, would never have ventured far from her home in Little Rock, never have joined the Navy, never have fallen in love with a man like De Beque, but who rises to the challenge in every way.
The musical staging, by Christopher Gattelli, was always great to look at, but I especially loved "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right out of My Hair." I loved seeing O'Hara prance around on stage, get into the shower and actually wash her hair. When I review it in my mind, it still makes me smile. And while many of the musicals I've seen over the past years have had big, showstopping numbers for their finales, there's something sweet and understated about the quiet, tender ending of South Pacific.
I can completely understand why South Pacific was so popular with audiences when it opened on Broadway in 1949. Perhaps the musical doesn't show us how we were in reality, but it's how we liked to think of ourselves - brave, adventurous, inventive, with a can-do attitude. We were "Cockeyed Optimists," like Nellie Forbush, entrepreneurs like Danny Burstein's sailor Luther Billis, always trying to think up schemes to make a buck, and like Lieutenant Cable, we never shirked our responsibility.
In a recent article in The New York times, Charles Isherwood compared two views of America in South Pacific and another current Broadway revival, Gypsy. He contrasted South Pacific's cheery optimism with the darker tone and theme in Gypsy, calling them "theatrical bookends" of the 1950s.
But I think there's a better contrast. The play that I would pair South Pacific with is the contemporary dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County. If South Pacific is the idealized, romanticized beginning of the Greatest Generation, then August is when it all comes crashing to an end in old age and illness, in a torrent of anger and bitterness. As someone with an interest in theatre and postwar American history, what an amazing, thought-provoking double feature those two would make.
I think audiences today have to see South Pacific as a product of its time, as an example of how we saw ourselves as Americans at a specific point in history. It was the last war we all marched off to together, and unless there's a draft again, the last war we will ever march off to together. Since the end of World War II, we've really only had a few national, communal experiences. We're much more culturally and politically fragmented today.
That's what made the final words of South Pacific so moving. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the last time we were attacked on our own soil was Dec. 7, 1941. And what did we do? We rolled up our sleeves, mobilized factories, planted Victory Gardens, used ration coupons, fought the forces of evil across the world - and won.
But someday soon, the places where those battles were fought will become as distant as Shiloh and Gettysburg. When the grandchildren of the baby boomers ask what was so great about the Greatest Generation, South Pacific isn't the only answer or perhaps even the best, but it would be a pretty good place to start.