June has come upon us quickly and finds the cast of Music Boosters’ production of “South Pacific” busily preparing their roles for opening night in just three weeks.
For those of you who have not seen the show or may not be familiar with it (as I was not until recently), I will brief you as to the history of the show and in a subsequent article, its plot summary.
“South Pacific” was originally staged on Broadway in 1949 by producer Leland Hayward and director Josh Logan. The idea for the show originated with Logan who had read James Michener’s 1947 novel “Tales of the South Pacific” and decided to adapt a stage version of the short stories’ main characters. They subsequently purchased the rights from Michener and set about hiring a librettist and composer, hoping to commission Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to that end. The duo accepted their offer and Hammerstein set about writing the book while Rodgers was charged with composing the musical score. The libretto was originally based on two of Michener’s stories from the book, “Fo Dolla” and “Our Heroine.” In that both stories were quite serious in subject matter and tone, Hammerstein asked that Michener include a third story about a sailor who was obsessed with the ladies, Luther Billis.
Soon after beginning his assignment, Hammerstein realized he knew little about life in the Navy or about the romantic lead’s southern culture or dialect. To that end, Rodgers asked Josh Logan to help him write the book. While Logan asked to be given credit for his part in the writing process, Hammerstein consented, but then insisted that he (Logan) receive none of his forthcoming royalties.
The task of casting the principals fell partially to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rodgers had a colleague at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, Edwin Lester who had recently hired a former Metropolitan Opera star, Ezio Pinza, to do a musical which had fallen through. Per the terms of Pinza’s contract with the Civic Light Opera he was to be paid $25,000 whether he performed or not. As a result, Lester was searching at that time for another production with which to engage Pinza and Rodgers and Hammerstein enthusiastically accepted Lester’s suggestion, casting Pinza in the lead role as Emile de Becque.
Meanwhile, Hammerstein had seen Mary Martin in her performance of “One Touch of Venus” and was inspired at the sight of her wearing a gingham dress. They sought her out and found that she was busily touring in her role as Annie Oakley in a production of “Annie Get Your Gun. “They finally were able to lure her to the part when they auditioned the songs, “Cockeyed Optimist,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Twin Soliloquies” for Martin and her husband. Martin was taken with the music and accepted the role of Nellie Forbush.
During the production of “South Pacific,” Hammerstein and Logan adapted the characters from Michener’s novel to more fully suit Pinza and Martin as well as customizing the songs to suit their voices.
As the show entertained the twin themes of racial prejudice and interracial marriage, it was quite controversial for its time. Nellie Forbush, the lead female struggles against her southern upbringing when confronted with the fact of her love interest’s interracial children from a previous union. Another of the show’s principals, Lieutenant Cable falls in love with a Polynesian woman and grapples with the idea of marrying her and bringing her back to the States. His song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” deals with the subject of racial prejudice and was considered pro-communist, indecent, and contrary to the American way of life by some vocal critics and politicians of the time. The controversy extended so far as an effort by some Georgia legislators to pass a law prohibiting the presentation of any entertainment promoting an implicit communist philosophy. This occurred when the show was on tour in the Southern states.
Art forms that endure contain elements not only of artistic genius and beauty but also of cultural import and challenging ideas. Both of these are apparent in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s theatrical piece; beautiful, memorable melodies, serious moments offset by charming comic relief, and ideas about tolerance which challenged the social milieu of the time. All of these work together to produce a classic theatrical piece. And you will soon have the privilege of seeing it right here in Pagosa Springs.
“South Pacific” premieres on the Pagosa stage at the high school auditorium on June 24 at 7 p.m. The show will run June 25 at 7 p.m. and on Sunday, June 26, at 2 p.m. The following week, show times are Thursday, June 30, Friday., July 1, and the finale is Saturday, July 2. All shows are at 7 p.m. except the Sunday matinee.
Tickets will be available soon online, at the Chamber, and at the door on performance nights.
For further information call Lisa Hartley at 731-2130 or Dale Johnson at 731-3370.