Theater of War

Even if you don't give a hoot about musical theater, you can probably hum a few bars from "South Pacific." And if you can't, you should. This may have been a show your parents or grandparents loved, at a time when its songs—"Some Enchanted Evening" or "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame"—were hard-wired into America's collective unconscious. "South Pacific" was the third great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—after "Oklahoma" and "Carousel"—and when it opened in the spring of 1949, the country was still raw from the second world war that forms the show's backdrop. It was a departure from most Broadway extravaganzas: there were no fancy costumes, no chorus line—heck, there was no choreographer. Of course, it was highly entertaining and deeply romantic—a love story between a Navy nurse and a French planter on a tropical island that serves as a U.S. base against the Japanese. But the musical also took a remarkably daring look at race and the clash of cultures—so daring and real that the show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In the current Broadway era of Disney franchises and repackaged jukebox hits, it may seem unusual to look to a musical for a lesson in moral and cultural history. But "South Pacific"—which is about to receive its first Broadway revival in almost 60 years—doesn't have the whiff of mothballs that spoils so many restagings of old favorites. That frisson you may feel will come not only from the unabashedly beautiful score but also from the surprising freshness of the show's ideas. Let's see: it's wartime in an exotic and faraway locale. Boredom mixes with tension as the officers and grunts sweat out the wait to confront an unseen enemy. There are acts of heroism and sacrifice, but also insidious prejudice against the local population. When "South Pacific" was written, the hard-won war for freedom and justice had been fought with segregated troops; on the home front, discrimination was still rampant and legal. Now we have an African-American running for president who just delivered a stirring speech on our history of racial attitudes—just the themes that pervade "South Pacific."

The drama in "South Pacific" revolves around Nellie Forbush (Kelli O'Hara), a plucky young woman from Little Rock, Ark., who longs to see distant places and meet different kinds of people. As a Navy nurse, Nellie gets her wish, and then some, when she falls in love with the elegant expat Frenchman Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot). But when she discovers he has two mixed-race children—their dead mother was an island native—she breaks off the relationship. "I can't help it," Nellie cries. "This is something that is born in me." But her friend Marine Lt. Joe Cable (Matthew Morrison) insists, in one of the most bitter songs you'll ever hear in a musical, that racism is learned: "You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made,/And people whose skin is a different shade—/You've got to be carefully taught." Don't forget: this was a song written in the 1940s, and in the out-of-town tryouts, there was pressure to change the number or cut it, according to a new book by Laurence Maslon, "The South Pacific Companion." Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II refused.

If "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" showed the courage of Hammerstein and composer Richard Rodgers, so, too, did the then scandalous subplot of the heroic Cable's love affair with the beautiful Ton-kinese girl Liat. After "South Pacific" played in Atlanta in the early 1950s, it was denounced on the floor of the Georgia Legislature, for Cable's song (termed propaganda "inspired by Moscow") and for the theme of interracial relationships: "Intermarriage produces half-breeds," said one legislator. "And half-breeds are not conducive to the higher type of society."

But beyond its attack on racism, the show even dared, in that victorious postwar period, to question war itself. "I know what you're against," says a defiant Emile to one of the U.S. officers, "but what are you for?" It was a brave question to raise in 1949, about a war that had had nearly total national support, in front of audiences that would have been full of vets. It hits us hard today as well, with our ongoing debates over the five-year-old Iraq War.

Part of the genius of Hammerstein and his co-writer, Joshua Logan, was to make sure the audience didn't lose sympathy for the sunny, down-to-earth Nellie, despite her bigotry. She is a "cockeyed optimist," as normal as blueberry pie—the embodiment of America itself. We root for her and count on her ability to change for the better. And she does. In the last scene, she's mothering Emile's children, on her way to creating a blended, multicultural family that would surely shock her mother back in Little Rock. As Bartlett Sher, the director of this wonderful new production, says of Rodgers and Hammerstein, "They were way, way ahead of their time." Nellie's transformation helps give "South Pacific" its powerful optimism—as does the deft comedy from such characters as Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre), a tough Tonkinese peddler, and Luther Billis (Danny Burstein) and his mates in the Seabees, the ordinary Joes who built the U.S. bases.

Most of these characters were based on real people, as captured by James Michener in his 1947 book "Tales of the South Pacific," which inspired the musical (and which also won a Pulitzer). Michener had been stationed during the war on the island of Espíritu Santo—a stopover for half a million servicemen on their way to such horrific battles as Guadalcanal and Tarawa—and he fictionalized the stories he'd witnessed or heard. There were Navy nurses such as Nellie, an Emile-like French planter and even a young sailor from Alabama who refused to go home—and take the heat—for having a native girlfriend who was pregnant. Sher probed Michener's book, as well as early versions of the Hammerstein-Logan script, in preparing for this new "South Pacific." He even restored, in Nellie's agonized speech about the Polynesian mother of Emile's children, her use of the word "colored," which originally had been cut. He also projects Michener's words on a scrim to open the show, and to close it with this: "They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge."

You'd be hard-pressed to argue that we're deep in the shadows even yet, considering how much attention the "greatest generation" still receives. Younger audiences may find it quaint that a war sparked such universal support and that race was such a divisive issue. But in addition to the issues, there are the immense pleasures of this production, with its first-rate cast and the music that so magically evokes both the exoticism and emotionalism of the story. Rodgers, Hammerstein and Logan understood their characters profoundly and created a mirror of America that was sophisticated but never cynical. "South Pacific" is about the way we were—and the way we are, even now.