Pop Culture Homework Assignment #8: South Pacific

After being casually dismissive of an entire era of musical theater during the last assignment, it may seem strange that I'd choose to throw myself right back into it for this one. This is where circumstance comes in. It was a lovely summer evening to hang out at the Muny. A friend I don't get to see much was going to see South Pacific there. And he had an extra ticket. Voila!

I knew very little about this show going in. I was aware of its existence, of course, and am naturally familiar with songs like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "Some Enchanted Evening", since they have filtered down into popular consciousness. But as far as plot and such goes, I went in blind. It's actually a really progressive show, given that it was first produced in 1949. Rodgers and Hammerstein wove two stories about interracial love into the show, one that is stymied by internal prejudice, and one that is beset by fears about societal rejection. Another very refreshing thing about this show is that the characters have no problem voicing their feelings. I don't mind the "I must keep this secret from so-and-so" trope if it's used well (and sparingly), but it's gotten a little tiring to see a story's main conflict revolve around a problem that wouldn't exist if people just sat down and had a five-minute conversation. Not so in South Pacific. If someone's in love, they say so. If someone's angry, they say so. If someone would like to use a burgeoning romantic relationship to obtain valuable espionage information, they say so. If someone has done something in the past that they're not particularly proud of, they admit it up front. I very much enjoyed that aspect of the show.

Unfortunately, I also enjoy things like tying up loose ends and good pacing, both of which South Pacific botches. Both of these problems are most evident in the story arc of the marine Lt. Joseph Cable and Liat, a young Tonkinese woman. Brought together by Liat's mother, the two of them fall in love and have sex almost instantly. I think literally forty seconds pass between their introduction and their Love For the Ages is consummated. Romeo and Juliet would take a look at these two and be, like, "Whoa, slow down, Trigger." Later, after Cable refuses to marry Liat, he goes on a dangerous military mission, during which he is killed. Liat and her mother, not knowing this, approach the show's main character (Nellie), and tell her that Liat insists on marrying Cable. Nellie says "there, there" and leads Liat off-stage. And that's it. That's the entire resolution to the major secondary story of the show. That abruptness of both beginning and end was very off-putting.

The main story (that of Nellie and plantation owner Emile de Becque) makes more sense, but brings to light the other issue with South Pacific. You know the famous songs I brought up before? They're great, as are a few of the others ("There Is Nothing Like a Dame", "Honey Bun", and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" are particularly good). But that's five songs in a pretty damn long show. There are vast stretches that are pretty uninspired, and tunes that are supposed to pack an emotional wallop ("Bali Ha'i", "Younger Than Springtime", "Happy Talk") left me cold.

I'm really glad I saw this show. Not because it's a fantastic work of art - I'd say that it's not great, but it's inoffensive and has charming bright spots. But like all Pop Culture Homework Projects, it gave me a better sense of the type of entertainment people have flocked to over the decades. You should have seen all the old ladies around me in the audience when Nellie launched into "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair". They began to sway in their seats, their eyes shining. It's obvious that South Pacific has been a huge influence on a generation of American culture, and even if it's not destined to have the same effect on me, I always find it heartwarming to watch people get so enthusiastic about their favorite works.

South Pacific: C+


Anonymous said...

I'd say your assessment is pretty spot-on with my feelings about the show as well. I was surprised that it addressed race in such an up-front way for its time, and the pacing was so wildly uneven that I think it would have helped to have not quite so much going on. Same about the songs, although I thought "Bali Ha'i" was lovely. I haven't seen many R&H musicals, but I wonder if the rest of their oeuvre is similar.

Limecrete said...

I believe it is. I know it's not fair of me to criticize works written in the '40s for being "old-fashioned", but I find shows like Oklahoma! dull. I seem to have no problem with old-fashioned movies, but when it comes to musicals, I guess my tastes just skew modern.

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