Saturday, April 5, 2008

"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"

There's an interesting two-page spread about South Pacific in the current issue of Newsweek. It's a review that also recounts the show's history, some of its themes, and the relevance of its plot about World War II in the Pacific to audiences in 2008.

I knew that one of the stories, the romance between Lt. Joe Cable and a beautiful young Polynesian woman named Liat, was daring when South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949. But until I read Cathleen McGuigan's article, I didn't realize the full extent of the controversy behind one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical's most memorable songs, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

Cable, played in the current Lincoln Center revival by Matthew Morrison, sings the song as a retort to Kelli O'Hara's nurse Nellie Forbush, who says she can't help the way she feels about the two half-Polynesian children of French planter Emile De Beque, and breaks off their relationship. The lyrics take issue with the notion that human beings are born bigoted. We have to be taught to hate as children, the song says, it doesn't come naturally.

It's a pretty clear message and today, it seems obvious. (Also, what's the chance today that a song from musical theatre would cause such an uproar?) Of course it's absurd to think that we're born hating anyone. I mean, the song's sentiments would be perfectly at home on Barney or Sesame Street for heaven's sake:

"You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You've got to be carefully taught."

But according to Laurence Maslon, author of the new book The South Pacific Companion, there was pressure during the out-of-town tryouts to change "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" or to cut it from the show entirely. Thankfully, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II refused.

James Michener, who wrote Tales of the South Pacific, on which the musical was based, recalled "The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in."

In this weekend's New York Times, reporter Larry Bloom also mentions the controversy in a story recalling South Pacific's tryout at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Until "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," Bloom says, Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn't made social commentary a hallmark of their work.

Bloom writes, "Michener recalled in The World Is My Home that an agitated man accosted him at New Haven’s Union Station and warned: “Your play will fail if you leave that song in about racial prejudice. It’s ugly, it’s untimely and it’s not what patrons want to hear when they go to a musical.”

Well, thankfully that man was wrong. South Pacific opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949, with "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" intact, and played for 1,925 performances, closing on Jan. 16, 1954.

But apparently the show's success didn't silence the bigots. McGuigan writes that when South Pacific was was performed in Atlanta in the early 1950s, "it was denounced on the floor of the Georgia Legislature, for Cable's song (termed propaganda "inspired by Moscow") and for the theme of interracial relationships: "Intermarriage produces half-breeds," said one legislator. "And half-breeds are not conducive to the higher type of society."

Scholar Andrea Most, in an article for Theatre Journal in 2000 about the politics of race in South Pacific, says that one Georgia state legislator even claimed that a song justifying interracial marriage was a threat to the American way of life. Most writes that Hammerstein expressed surprise at the idea that "anything kind and humane must necessarily originate in Moscow."

I guess you could say that the whole issue sounds quaint and outdated, with little relevance for today's audience. And in a year when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, is running for president, that view is understandable. But the lesson behind "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is one we can still use. And am I the only one who thinks that the controversy about interracial relationships and their supposed threat to the American way of life sounds familiar in a more current context?

In Newsweek, McGuigan also includes the very moving coda that appears on a scrim at the end of the South Pacific revival. For me, it put what I'd just seen in perspective and gave the show an added level of resonance. I won't repeat it here in case you're going to see South Pacific and you want to be surprised, but you can find it on Page 2 of her article.

The South Pacific Companion, by the way, will be published on May 6. It covers the show's Broadway debut, its many incarnations over the decades, and the current revival. Maslon is a professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and coauthor of the companion volume to the excellent PBS series Broadway: The American Musical.

For a little taste of what the South Pacific sounds like today, you can hear Maslon and some of the principals involved in the current production in this interview on National Public Radio. And the Lincoln Center Theater Review has a special issue devoted to South Pacific, which you can read online.

Just hearing a few brief clips of that gorgeous score has me wishing I could see South Pacific again, this time from the orchestra section. Since that's unlikely, I'll have to be content with the cast CD, which will be released on May 27.


Anonymous said...

Bloom couldn't be more wrong. Rodgers and Hammerstein ALWAYS made social commentary a hallmark of their work. Oscar Hammerstein was a fiercely progressive man, and imbued all of his work with socially relevant themes, even before he paired up with Richard Rodgers. Much of Carousel is about the unfortunate plight of women; Oklahoma is about how society overcomes brutish lawlessness to enter modern civilization; Allegro is about how people make choices between personal morality and societal pressures. If these aren't socially relevant themes, what are?

Esther said...

Chris, thanks so much for weighing in and providing your expertise. I appreciate it! You've taught me quite a bit about R&H, including the tentative nature of love in their songs. I've learned a lot about musical theatre from your blog and from meeting you. And I have to admit, I've never heard of Allegro.

Anonymous said...

Read the book.
Michener specifically describes the relationships as being influenced by social racial stereotypes.
The song is the pivotal piece in the story.

Graham N

Esther said...

Hey Graham, Thank-you so much for reading and for the comment. You're right, I should read South Pacific. I've been a Michener fan since I was a teenager and read several of his books but not that one. And I think it's one of his shorter ones, too. ;-)