South Pacific is the fourth Broadway musical produced by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It opened in 1949 following up the the success of Oklahoma and Carousel, and the painful failure of Allegro. Director Josh Logan had suggested that a story by James Michener called “Fo’ Dolla” would make a good subject. Rodgers read it and the entire Tales of the South Pacific while he was in the hospital and urged Hammerstein to read it, too. The story of South Pacific uses “Fo’ Dolla” and at least two other stories from that collection.
One of the treasures of the golden age of the Broadway musical, South Pacific is unusual in many respects. It is more nearly contemporary than most musicals, taking place during the recently concluded Second World War. It contains no love duet between the principal characters. It dispenses with customary dance routines, replacing them with a chorus of soldiers. Like Carousel, it has tragic overtones with the death of one of the characters. And it directly addressed one of the most divisive social issues of the day.
While still at the stage of blocking out the libretto, Rodgers got a call from a producer with a problem. He had operatic star Ezio Pinza under contract for a musical, but the show had fallen through. Rodgers and Hammerstein made their first casting decision, choosing Pinza as the French planter Emile de Becque. Then then needed to decide whom to cast opposite him as Nellie Forbush. They selected Mary Martin, who absolutely loved “A Wonderful Guy,” the first song the pair had finished, but she was hesitant to sing opposite a voice like Pinza’s. They promised her there would be no love duet. The two characters sing the “Twin Soliloquies” instead.
The soldiers’ chorus steals the show with two rousing numbers, “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.” Probably no one especially missed the dancing girls after watching those scenes! The latter, especially, bursts out from the confines of the standard thirty-two measure Tin Pan Alley kind of song.
Allegro had failed at least in part because people considered it too preachy. That didn’t keep Rodgers and Hammerstein from expressing strong disapproval of racial prejudice in South Pacific. In the main story, Nellie fell in love with Emile and then recoiled when she discovered that he had mixed-race children. While many Americans of the time would have preferred that revelation to cause the two of them to split apart, Nellie worked hard to overcome her prejudice and accept the children.
In the secondary plot, Lieutenant Cable falls in love with the Tonkinese Liat and rails in the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” against the prejudice that would prevent her from ever being accepted back home. The number cause consternation among backers who feared that it would bookings on tour and outrage among those who considered justification of interracial marriage a threat to the American way of life. Rodgers and Hammerstein both insisted that the point of that song was the entire reason why they wanted to produce South Pacific in the first place. It would stay even if it meant the play would fail.
South Pacific became a huge hit regardless of the controversy over its message. It introduced enduring hits, including “Bali Hai,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Younger Than Springtime.”