I’ve always been a Rodgers & Hammerstein junkie (I don't mind admitting that for nearly as long as I can remember, Oklahoma! has been my favorite musical). When I was younger, however, I wasn’t hooked by South Pacific; the music is catchy, Billis and Bloody Mary are hilarious, so why couldn’t I get into this show? As I’ve gotten older, I realize that what the problem was, to quote Oscar Hammerstein, “nothing else is built the same.” South Pacific is a nuanced, yet whimsical look at several very deep and often dark subjects: war, prejudice, and yes, love. As I kid, I didn’t “get” these topics, so I didn’t “get” the show.
As I got ready to see South Pacific last night, I wondered what must have been changed, updated, to make the show relatable and fresh more than 60 years after it debuted. The answer I found, is nothing! This production of South Pacific offered nostalgia without feeling dated. All of the songs were beautifully sung and staged (when Jason Howard finished “Some Enchanted Evening” the audience’s excitement was palpable). South Pacific follows the old musical model of spontaneously bursting into song and dance (in new shows, there is orchestration playing through most of the show so the songs don’t feel quite as unnatural) but managed to make it feel normal. There is the light humor I remembered from childhood, and a wealth of more adult jokes that were new to me as I viewed the show through grown-up eye! Rodgers & Hammerstein were able to leave you feeling happy and but there is a somberness to the entire show that you cannot, and should not, escape. Even the end, the standard "happily ever after" that you find in shows from the Golden Era of the Musical, had a dark cloud over it as all of the sailors, seabees, and marines we've spent the entire show falling in love with, ship out to face the bloodiest period in WWII's Pacific Theater.
Finally, I wouldn’t be me (a history-nerd through and through) if I didn’t say that I really appreciated the care this production took to historical accuracy! The costumes were well researched and gorgeous! I was floored when a whole airplane was rolled out onstage for much of Act I. More than any of that was the subtle approaches to race (one of the most prominent themes of the show) the show took. Through careful staging and the great acting within the Company, it was obvious that the issues of race confronting Nellie, Emile, Lt. Cable, and Liat really were very deep and pervasive. The obvious spoken and sung sentiments regarding issues of race give the audience the promps needed to know that this is a history piece, yet "You Have to be Carefully Taught" felt as fresh and relevant today as it must have been 60 years ago. There were many subtle ways the show illustrated the depth and acceptance of racism that was present in the 1940s; the military in WWII was a segregated, and that fact was shown to the audience, though never stated. The updates I had expected to see can be found in all of these subtleties and complexities. South Pacific is a classic for a reason, and I'm so happy to say that now I get it!