Published in January 1947, James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of related World War II short stories, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. The team of producer Leland Hayward and director Joshua Logan first had the idea of turning the book into a musical, and it was Logan who brought the idea to Richard Rodgers. Soon it became a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, with Logan as both director and co-librettist and Hayward joining the producing team of Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Logan.
The original plan was to base the new musical on the story "Fo' Dolla'," about a romance between a young island girl and a stuffy American officer. (Relationships and interaction between Americans and various native and colonial characters are at the core of most of Michener's stories.) Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, decided that this would seem too similar to Madama Butterfly, and made the "Fo' Dolla'" line subsidiary to another romance found in "Our Heroine," about a Southern nurse who falls in love with a French plantation owner. For comic relief, they took the character of the Seabee conman Luther Billis from the story "A Boar's Tooth."
The result was a show about three interconnected couples: the older lovers U.S. Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush and French planter Emile de Becque; the young lovers Marine Lt. Joseph Cable and the Tonkinese girl Liat; and the competing/conspiring hustlers Bloody Mary (Liat's mother) and Billis. It takes place around 1942, on an unspecified island in the South Pacific. The overture, a dramatic arrangement of the show's main numbers, begins with three of the most famous notes in American musical theater, the opening phrase of the song "Bali Ha'i." The two children of the widower Emile and his deceased Polynesian wife are playing on the terrace of Emile's house and sing "Dites-Moi." They are hustled off by a servant as their father and Nellie, a nurse he has met, approach. Nellie sings a personal philosophy, "A Cockeyed Optimist," and then Nellie and Emile sing of their blossoming love in "Twin Soliloquies." Emile urges her to seize the moment in "Some Enchanted Evening."
At a navy base on the island, bored U.S. sailors and Marines sing "Bloody Mary," saluting the local woman who sells native crafts for "fo' dolla'," and lament the absence of women in "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." Lt. Joseph Cable enters the scene with a dangerous secret mission to set up an observation post on a Japanese-occupied island. He is diverted by Billis and Bloody Mary, who lure him with the temptations of "Bali Ha'i," a nearby but off-limits island. Cable asks Nellie about Emile, and whether Emile might accompany him on his mission. Nellie has been thinking about Emile and decides "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." As soon as she sees him again, however, she is convinced that Emile is "A Wonderful Guy." Now that he has something to live for, Emile turns down the American request to go on the mission. With the project delayed, Cable is swayed by Billis to requisition a boat and take them to Bali Ha'i, where he meets Bloody Mary's daughter Liat and falls in love, singing "Younger Than Springtime." On the other island, Nellie attends a party at Emile's house, after which he introduces her to his children, whom she had not realized were his. Nellie's prejudices overwhelm her and she rushes out as Act I ends.
The second act begins two weeks later, amid preparations for a Thanksgiving show at the base. Emile arrives, looking for Nellie, and Bloody Mary comes in with Liat, looking for Cable. Bloody Mary makes her sly case for marriage in the song "Happy Talk," but Cable succumbs to his own prejudices and refuses. During the Thanksgiving show, Nellie does a routine dressed as a sailor singing about "his" girlfriend "Honey Bun" - Billis dressed in a grass skirt and coconut bra. Afterwards she and Cable discuss their confused feelings. When Emile enters, Nellie asks Cable to explain their American prejudices in "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." (This was a point of some controversy in that era and Rodgers and Hammerstein were pressured to delete the number, but refused.) Emile sings of what he has lost in "This Nearly Was Mine" and now agrees to join Cable on the desperate mission. Another two weeks go by, in which Emile and Cable are successful in the mission, although Cable is killed. A final radio broadcast breaks off as Emile is being attacked, and we don't know whether he has survived. Nellie, meanwhile, overcomes her prejudices and decides that she does love Emile and will care for his children if he has not survived. The musical ends where it began, on the terrace of Emile's house, with Nellie and the two children. As they sing "Dites-Moi" together, Emile returns. As the new "family" sits down, we realize Nellie and Emile will indeed be together.
South Pacific opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949, and ran for more than five years, racking up 1,925 performances and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. The original cast included Mary Martin as Nellie, Ezio Pinza as Emile, William Tabbert as Lt. Cable, Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary, Betta St. John as Liat, and Myron McCormick as Billis. It was nominated for nine Tonys, including all four acting awards, and won all of them. Martin and Pinza were cast early in the development of the show, and Rodgers wrote their songs with their distinctive voices in mind. Pinza left the show as soon as he could, to do film musicals, but Martin moved on to the London production, which ran for 802 performances in its own right. In the London chorus were Martin's son Larry Hagman and - in his stage debut in 1951 - Sean Connery.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.