South Pacific is Back on Broadway...Finally

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Joan Marcus / Philip Rinaldi Publicity / AP

She'd wash that man right out of her hair if it weren't for the washboard abs. Matthew Morrison, left, and Li Jun Li in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific.

Among Broadway’s musical classics, South Pacific has long had a special mystique. An instant critical and popular smash when it opened in April 1949, it swept the Tony awards, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and ran for a then-extraordinary five years. For a generation of postwar theatergoers, it was cherished like almost no other American musical. In my own parents’ rather sparse record collection, it was the one original cast album that got played over and over — the Broadway show music that provided the soundtrack of my childhood.

Yet the show seems to have lost a lot of luster among musical-theater tastemakers in the last half-century. The two Rodgers & Hammerstein hit shows that preceded it, Oklahoma and Carousel, have been revived and reappraised many times since: parsed by the critics for their innovative integration of music and storytelling, hailed for their breakthroughs in dance and staging. But South Pacific remained strangely missing in action. At a time of revival mania, when shows like Guys and Dolls and Gypsy (now having its third Broadway revival in little over a decade, in a fine production with a titanic star turn by Patti LuPone) seem to get upgraded in critical esteem each time they reappear, South Pacific has sat largely neglected — without a single Broadway revival since its original run ended in 1954. The show was, I suspect, considered too much of its time — adapted from James Michener’s bestselling, but now largely forgotten, stories of the American occupation in the South Pacific during World War II. Fans and producers seemed content to leave the show consigned to memory, like a favorite family vacation spot that you’re afraid to revisit because it may have gone to pot.

Well, South Pacific is finally back on Broadway, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont theater in a new production directed by Bartlett Sher. The happy news is that its brilliance hasn’t faded. Indeed, the long absence may have made its many virtues shine brighter. With apologies to the Carousel and Oklahoma boosters (and the one or two who would throw in a vote for The King and I), I just might nominate South Pacific as the best of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. At the very least, it’s the one for adults.

Far from a warhorse, the show today looks surprisingly fresh, astringent, meaty and convention-defying. Unlike most of the other R&H shows, it is not set in an idealized small-town America or in a romanticized foreign land. There are no fantasy scenes or ballet-inspired dance numbers — the sort of things that gives shows like The King and I and Oklahoma their timeless, almost mythic quality. Yet that is not to say South Pacific is any less adventurous or innovative. This is a show in which the central love story — between Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and the middle-aged French plantation owner Emile de Beque — along with the show’s big love ballad, are basically disposed of in the very first scene. The rest of the show is an exploration of that relationship, an unraveling of backstory, the placing of it in the context of everything else that is going on in the play, and the world.

The show, written by Hammerstein along with director Joshua Logan, expertly interweaves the subplots and characters: the wheeling-and-dealing seabee Luther Billis, the love affair between Marine Lt. Joe Cable and a native girl; the effort to lure de Becque into joining a mission to spy on the Japanese. Most provocatively, there is the revelation of Nellie’s racism, after she discovers that her French dreamboat has fathered two mixed-race children. Even today, this seems an awfully daring turn for a 1950s musical to take. The famous second-act song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” remains one of the most acidly subversive pieces of social criticism ever found in an American musical.

From today's vantage point, most surprising is how much South Pacific, a show so identified with postwar America, seems to fly in the face of the prevailing patriotic afterglow of the “last good war.” The melodramatic main storyline — a race to gain intelligence from the Japanese that could, in some unspecified way, turn the war around — carries about as much weight as one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. No one talks about the war’s ideals, or its causes, or even its combatants; every character in the show is seeking a way of escaping from it.

Mostly they escape through song, and it’s wondrous to see and hear the over-familiar melodies and lyrics in context again. “Some Enchanted Evening”, which always struck me as the stodgiest of the big R&H love ballads, becomes an affecting, shape-shifting reflection of the show’s emotional movement, from the joy of love-at-first-sight to the rueful foreshadowing of love lost. Even the seemingly simple lyrics of “A Wonderful Guy” glide from ironic detachment to full-throated romanticism with deceptive wit and charm:

I am in a conventional dither/ With a conventional star in my eye …/ If you’ll excuse/ An expression I use/ I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love…

To be honest, the new revival, though fluid and exceptionally well sung, isn’t quite ideal. Kelli O’Hara, as Nellie, has a pretty, pool-clear voice that — in earlier shows like the revival of Pajama Game — impressed me as the closest thing to Mary Martin this side of heaven. But in the role that Martin made famous, she falls a couple of notches short on the adorability meter. Danny Burstein’s Luther Billis could use more Bilko-esque humor, and Matthew Morrison as Lt. Cable is bland. On the other hand, Paulo Szot, as de Becque, scales down the operatic bombast (with apologies to Ezio Pinza) and finds new depths of emotion in a touching song like This Nearly Was Mine. Nothing, in any event, goes very far wrong in this worthy revival of a show that, while no longer younger than springtime, still gets almost everything right.