When South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949, Americans were just four years past World War II. Critics called the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Navy nurses, Seabees, Polynesian beauties and Tonkinese natives “magnificent” and “a show of rare enchantment.”
In the decades since, South Pacific has morphed into more of a sunny, golly-gee, all-American show performed most often by amateur groups, featuring many a high school boy trying hard to locate middle-age gravitas. Something had been lost.
Director Bartlett Sher was determined to find that something when he began working on the Lincoln Center production that led to this tour. So, he returned to the source material — the original creative team’s notes and James A. Michener’s fictionalized memoir Tales of the South Pacific, with its stories of Ensign Nellie Forbush, French planter Emile de Becque and island entrepreneur Bloody Mary.
The result, says Carmen Cusack, who plays Nellie, is a more realistic look at the 1940s. “It’s how Americans lived and thought and played,” she says. “It has really brought a lot more color to the story.”
And a darker tone, one that reflects the human cost of war and the racial prejudices of the time. Sher added a few lines of dialogue and the song “My Girl Back Home” (first heard in the 1958 movie) in which Nellie and Lt. Joseph Cable try to reconcile their upbringing with their wartime lives and loves. Sher also uses his ensemble to depict the racial divide at that time (watch, for example, where African-American actors are positioned during chorus numbers).
Cusack first saw South Pacific in London in 2004. She remembers the piece as “very cute, all sunshiny and pretty” and the songs as “lovely and sweet.”
They still are. But with Sher’s vision, the musical more accurately reflects what Cusack calls “the viewpoint of Americans at that time. We were segregated. We called [minorities] a lot of names. No one even thought it was wrong at the time. That’s just the way things were. No one questioned why they felt the way they felt.”
The original South Pacific won 11 Tony Awards including musical, book, score, director and scenic design as well as actor, actress, and featured actor and actress. It won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama, only the second musical in history at that time to do so. And, with 1,925 performances, it remains the 30th longest-running show in Broadway history, just behind Pippin and ahead of Aida.
This South Pacific won seven Tonys, for Sher’s direction as well as revival, actor, scenic design, costumes, lighting and sound design. It recently reached the 800-performance mark on Broadway and, after being one of the toughest tickets in New York for more than a year, is still playing to 80 percent capacity.
Cusack, who has dark hair and “European” features never thought she’d get cast as Nellie, a character she considered a pretty, blonde, cheerleader, Doris Day type. Now, after more than a few months as the cockeyed optimist from Arkansas, she’s found the richness in the role first performed by Mary Martin and re-created for the revival by three-time Tony Award nominee Kelli O’Hara.
South Pacific may present a perfect blend of old and new. Like most musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age, it begins with an overture, one that lasts almost six minutes. Like the best of today’s shows, it uses 21st-century stagecraft to help tell (not overwhelm) the story.
It’s told cinematically, Cusack explains. “You really are transported to an island. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it is and how the scenes move in and out.”
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she has found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at both Synchronicity Theatre and 7 Stages.