Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Bali Hai

Everyone, by now, has heard that there’s a smash revival going on Broadway of the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. It was nominated for eleven Tony awards, and won seven of them on Sunday, including best musical revival. Paul Szot’s portrayal of Emile de Becque got him the award for best actor in a musical, but Kelli O’Hara’s Nellie Forbush lost to Patti LuPone in Gypsy.

But before the Tony awards were history, I’d already gotten the cast CD, to accompany the other recordings I have — of the original 1949 show (Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza), the 1958 movie (Mitzi Gaynor and Giorgio Tozzi (singing for Rossano Brazzi)), and the 1986 studio version (Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras). I also have a DVD transfer from TiVo of a 2005 Carnegie Hall concert version, with Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

You might figure that I like this musical.

It’s a favourite of mine for a number of reasons. The music and lyrics, of course. The quality of the singing in all of the recordings, naturally.

And the story. The stories in many musicals are secondary (or tertiary, or...), the purpose being to present a set of songs with merely a semblance of a plot to carry them through. Such shows as A Chorus Line, Annie, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers fall into that category, as do most things by Andrew Lloyd Weber (most obviously, Cats). That’s not to say that these are bad musicals, but only that it’s not their story lines that captivate one.

The best musicals match wonderful music and lyrics and singing and dancing with a good story. West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof are among the best. As is South Pacific, where the story that slaps racism in the face and comes out the winner was quite daring for its time, 1949. Lieutenant Cable must deal with his attraction to the Polynesian girl Liat, and Ensign Forbush overcomes her revulsion at learning of Emile’s half-Polynesian children. Even nine years later, the movie did not use Polynesian actors, because there really were none to use: Bloody Mary is played by Juanita Hall, a light-skinned black woman from New Jersey, and Liat is played by France Nuyen, a well-known French actress whose father was Vietnamese.

Anyway, back to the new recording: What a great addition to the collection! It’s so nice to have a fresh version of it, with new voices and an excellent recording (the 1949 and 1958 recordings are also fine, but they show their ages). And a recording made by an acting cast is bound to beat studio or concert-hall versions (as much as I love Kiri Te Kanawa, I have to say that the 1986 studio recording is a little on the stiff side compared with the others).

If you don’t have a South Pacific, by all means, consider this one. And if you do have one, and like the musical enough to contemplate a second, you’ll love it too.

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try......

— Oscar Hammerstein II
from “Some Enchanted Evening”


Laurie said...

I grew up with records of Oklahoma and South Pacific. I knew all the songs, and therefore much of the story, but didn't actually see South Pacific until I was in my late 20s. I used to dance around the house singing I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair when I was a teenager. When I was alone, of course. And before I had a boyfriend. After, it was I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy. I was an odd teenager.

That recording of South Pacific may have been my first exposure to racism, because I remember thinking how strange the song You've Got to be Carefully Taught was.

You probably would have done well on a lyric meme I did back in March.

Barry Leiba said...

Maybe an odd teenager, but one I would have liked when I was a teen. Yes, the first music I can remember listening to, when I was a pre-schooler, was "My Fair Lady" — though I didn't really understand what some of the songs were about. The second was "West Side Story", and then I think the Beatles showed up somewhere. So... musicals before the Beatles.

On the lyric thing, I'll check it out. I did this lyric list in April (alas, it has all the answers in it now).

Laurie said...

I think I would have only gotten about 5 on your list - We Belong, Africa, Straighten Up and Fly Right (my band actually plays this), I've Got a Rock and Roll Heart, and of course (if you look at my Lyric Meme I did Summer Nights), Hoplessly Devoted to You.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, dear. South Pacific... it's wonderful, yes, but I have to say that when I was in high school my drama club did an unauthorized parody of which I can now remember only one exchange, but that so well it's the first thing I do think of when I think of the play. (I remember we changed the ending a bit - Cable didn't die, he defected and became a beachcomber. We were in high school.)

Emile has just introduced his children to Nellie, who delivers the correct line "Are they Henri's?" Emile says, sotto voce, "I've often wondered... No, they're mine." "Oh," says Nellie. "Was their mother Polynesian?" "No. She was Swedish. That's why I've often wondered..."