There's a very thoughtful column by Frank Rich in today's New York Times looking at why Lincoln Center's gorgeous revival of South Pacific has struck a chord with so many theatergoers. Not surprisingly, but effectively, he ties it to the war in Iraq and to our unresolved national debate about race.
Because the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, like "Some Enchanted Evening," are so embedded in our collective consciousness, everyone thinks they've seen the real South Pacific, Rich say, but what they usually mean is that they've seen the glossy, candy-colored 1958 movie. "They expect corn, but in a year when war and race are at center stage in the national conversation, this relic turns out to have a great deal to say."
When audiences saw the original musical, which opened on Broadway in 1949, the memories of World War II in the Pacific were obviously still fresh in their minds. They "had sons and brothers who had not returned home." Today, relatively few Americans have such a personal connection to the war in Iraq. Rich goes on to say that South Pacific forces us to do something most of us have become very adept at avoiding - think about that war.
"South Pacific reminds us that those whose memory we honor tomorrow — including those who served in Vietnam — are always at the mercy of the leaders who send them into battle," Rich writes. "It increases our admiration for the selflessness of Americans fighting in Iraq."
Like war, the matters of race at the heart of South Pacific also are very much alive today. Nurse Nellie Forbush struggles to accept the mixed-race children of French planter Emile de Becque. "Years before Little Rock’s 1957 racial explosion," Rich says, "Nellie moves beyond her prejudices, propelled by life and love and the circumstances of war. She charts a path that much of America, North and South, would haltingly begin to follow."
What struck me most about the column was its ending. A few months ago, I weighed in, along with many other bloggers, about the value of theatre. Rich, who was the Times' theatre critic for years, gives us an indication of what his answer might be as he contemplates the hopeful scene at the end of South Pacific and why it moves many theatergoers to tears.
"We weep for the same reason we often do when we experience a catharsis at the theater. We grieve deeply for our losses and our failings, even as we feel an undertow of cockeyed optimism about the possibilities of healing and redemption that may yet lie ahead."