South Pacific is a musical play, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, that opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949, and ran for more than five years. It is generally considered to be one of the greatest musicals of all time, and a number of its songs, such as Bali Ha'i, Younger than Springtime, and Some Enchanted Evening, have become worldwide standards. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. The play is based on two short stories by James A. Michener from his book Tales of the South Pacific, which itself was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. The original cast starred Mary Martin as the heroine Nellie Forbush and opera star Ezio Pinza as Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner. Also in the cast were Juanita Hall, Myron McCormick, Betta St. John, and William Tabbert. Although De Becque and Forbush were already fully developed characters in Michener's stories, at some point during the creation of South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein came to have both Pinza and Martin specifically in mind as playing these two roles. Pinza was a well-known opera basso and Martin was, with Ethel Merman, perhaps the leading Broadway musical comedienne of the era. The subsequent music, and its presentation within the show, was therefore tailored for the voices of Pinza and Martin.
To celebrate the centenary of Richard Rodgers' birth in 2002, the Royal National Theatre reproduced the musical with celebrated director Trevor Nunn directing.
On a South Pacific island during World War II, a U.S. Navy nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, falls in love with a middle-aged French plantation owner, Emile de Becque. Meanwhile, the restless sailors of the Navy, led by the entrepreneurial seabee Luther Billis, are lamenting on the absence of women or combat to relieve their boredom, when Lieutenant Joe Cable of the U.S. Marine Corps arrives on the island to take part in a dangerous spy mission that might help turn the tide of the war against the Japanese. As only officers can sign out boats, Billis notices this opportunity to be able to get over to the mysterious and valuable island of Bali Ha'i, and convinces Cable to accompany him. On Bali Ha'i, Bloody Mary, the native souvenir dealer, introduces him to her daughter, Liat, and the two fall in love. The two couples prosper, and proposals of marriage are made; however, Nellie is shocked to discover that Emile has mixed-race children from an earlier relationship, and Cable refuses to marry Liat due to her race, infuriating Mary. Dejected and with nothing to lose, Emile and Cable agree to go on their dangerous mission, successfully sending reports on enemy action. 'Operation Alligator' gets underway, and the previously idle sailors, including the reluctant Luther Billis, are sent into battle. Unfortunately, Cable is killed during the mission, and Emile narrowly escapes a similar fate to return home to the now-understanding Nellie and his children.
The plot has been called flimsy by some because they see it as over-emphasizing the popular and well-known songs. However, the issue of racial prejudice is sensitively and candidly explored; James Michener claimed he was pressured to ask Rodgers and Hammerstein to take out the Joe Cable story, because it involved miscegenation.
1958 musical film
The musical was made into a film in 1958, starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor in the leading roles, with Juanita Hall in the part of Bloody Mary that she had played in the original stage production. Ironically, Hall, who not only sang in the stage production but also took part in the recording of the cast album, had her singing dubbed for the film version, by Muriel Smith. Metropolitan Opera star Giorgio Tozzi provided the singing voice for the role of Emile de Becque. Ray Walston starred as Billis, and his singing in the There Is Nothin' Like a Dame number was dubbed. John Kerr starred as Lt. Cable, and his voice was dubbed by Bill Lee. Ken Clark, who played Stewpot, was dubbed by Thurl Ravenscroft. Kauai, one of the Hawaiian Islands, served as the filming location for the movie. The film is known for the use of colored filters during many of the song sequences, which has been a source of criticism for the film. Director Joshua Logan wanted it to be a subtle change, but 20th Century Fox, the company that would distribute the 35mm version, made it an extreme change, and since tickets to the film were pre-sold (it was a roadshow attraction), they had no time to correct it. Criticism of the filtering did not prevent the film from topping the box office that year, and the 65mm Todd-AO cinematography (by Leon Shamroy) was nominated for an Academy Award, as was the music adaptation and the sound, winning the latter. All the songs have been retained, and a song entitled "My Girl Back Home," sung by Lt. Cable and Nellie, which was cut from the Broadway show, was added.
The soundtrack album has spent more weeks at Number 1 in the UK album chart than any other album, clocking up an astonishing 115 weeks at the top in the late 50s and early 60s. It spent 70 consecutive weeks at the top of the chart and was Number 1 for the whole of 1959.
Originally shown in a nearly 3-hour roadshow version and later cut to two-and-a-half hours for general release, the film is currently under restoration by rights holders MGM and Fox. Fox (which currently holds both the video rights and the film's copyright) is scheduled to release a "special edition" DVD in 2006. This would include the restored roadshow version with scenes not shown since its original Todd-AO theatrical release.
An elaborate television production, Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, was directed by Richard Pearce in 2001. A production with Glenn Close, Harry Connick Jr., Rade Serbedzija, Robert Pastorelli, Lori Tan Chinn, Natalie Mendoza, and Jack Thompson, it was filmed primarily in Australia, with some scenes shot in Moorea, an island close to Tahiti). Sixteen songs are featured in the movie. This version omitted the well-known song "Happy Talk", although not for "politically correct" reasons as has been rumored, and cut the even more popular song "Bali Hai" in half. Several new scenes, such as Nellie and Emile's very first meeting at the officer's club, were added, and a new character was created to serve as Nellie's best friend and confidante. The sex scenes between Liat and Lt. Cable were also dealt with more frankly than in the original. The film was harshly criticized by some because the order of the songs was somewhat changed, despite the order already having been altered when the original stageshow was converted to film, and because Rade Serbedsija, who played Emile, does not have an operatic singing voice, as have all other "Emile"s before him. Unlike the movie version of "The Sound of Music", the structure of this "South Pacific" was said by some to be damaged because of the change in the order of the songs. In the stage original and in the 1958 film, for instance, the song "Twin Soliloquies" expresses musically what Emile and Nellie do not actually say to each other and leads to Emile's "Some Enchanted Evening", sung only a minute later. In the television version, however, the two songs are sung in two entirely different scenes. A soundtrack from the movie was also released.
Carnegie Hall concert version
On June 9, 2005, a concert version of the musical, edited down to two hours but including all of the songs and the full musical score, was presented live at Carnegie Hall. It starred Reba McEntire as Nellie Forbush, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile, and Alec Baldwin as Luther Billis, and featured a full supporting cast. The production used Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations. It was taped and telecast by PBS on April 26, 2006.