South Pacific (musical)

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South Pacific is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949, and ran for more than five years. The original production won ten Tony Awards and is generally considered to be one of the greatest musicals of all time[1] [2] and "for a generation of postwar theatergoers, it was cherished like almost no other American musical." [3] Fifty-nine years later, the New York Times music critic Stephen Holden wrote in reference to a recent revival of the show, "The wonder is how fresh the score still sounds. 'South Pacific' caught a wave of American history at Broadway's high tide, like no other show has since."[4] "[T]he show’s defining impact was not financial; it was subliminal. At the zenith of America’s postwar power—with abundance and intolerance at loggerheads within the nation—the ravishing score reminded America of its best self, and gave the fraught fifties a mantra of promise." [5]

A number of its songs, particularly "Some Enchanted Evening", "Bali Ha'i", and "Younger than Springtime," have become worldwide standards, although nearly every song in the show is still known today, residing "in the collective American unconscious" [6]. Despite a decidedly tepid review by Time magazine,[7] it swept the Tony awards at the time and also received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. The play is based upon 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. "It was a departure from most Broadway extravaganzas: there were no fancy costumes, no chorus line... the musical also took a remarkably daring look at race and the clash of cultures." [8] "The famous second-act song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” remains one of the most acidly subversive pieces of social criticism ever found in an American musical." [9] In previews, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" made potential investors uncomfortable, and they requested that the song be cut. It would have been easy to do, since the show was long. When asked for his opinion, Michener said that cutting the song would remove the whole point of the show, Rodgers and Hammerstein concurred, and the song remained.

The original cast starred Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush, the heroine, 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. The music was by Richard Rodgers and the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Brooks Atkinson, the influential theater critic of the New York Times, called it a "magnificent musical drama" and found it a "tenderly beautiful idyll of genuine people inexplicably tossed together in a strange corner of the world."[10] He also wrote, with perfect prescience, that "If the country still has the taste to appreciate a masterly love song, 'Some Enchanted Evening' ought to become reasonably immortal." At the time it closed, after 1,925 performances, "South Pacific" was the fifth-longest running show in Broadway history. [11]

In spite of its great initial success on Broadway, it was not until 59 years later that a major revival was seen in New York City. A new production, starring Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot opened on April 3, 2008 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. It was warmly reviewed by Ben Brantley of The New York Times, who wrote, "I know we're not supposed to expect perfection in this imperfect world, but I'm darned if I can find one serious flaw in this production." He finishes by quoting Brooks Atkinson's description of six decades earlier and adds, "I think a lot of us had forgotten that's what 'South Pacific' is really about. In making the past feel unconditionally present, this production restores a glorious gallery of genuine people who were only waiting to be resurrected."[12] According to the review in the New York Daily News, one of the songs initially written for the original production but dropped before its 1949 Broadway opening, "My Girl back Home", a duet between Nellie and Lt. Cable, was reinstated for this show. [13]


  1. Critic John Simon writes: "Many are the knowledgeable and discriminating people for whom Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, brilliantly co-written and staged by Joshua Logan, was the greatest musical of all."
  2. "With South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein rose to new towering heights of success, both commercially and artistically, following their triumph with Oklahoma! and Carousel. There was hardly any question in anybody's mind at the première performance of South Pacific that this was a classic of the musical theatre of the stature of Oklahoma! and Carousel. The veteran producer Arthur Hammerstein called it the greatest musical show Broadway had ever seen, perfect in every respect. The critic Richard Watts, Jr., described it as 'a thrilling and exultant musical play, an utterly captivating work of theatrical art'."
  3. Time magazine, "South Pacific is Back on Broadway... Finally", April 3, 2008, at [1]
  4. Stephen Holden, The New York Times, Friday, June 27, 2008, "Not Your Mother's Original-Cast Albums", Weekend Arts at [2]
  5. The New Yorker, "A Thing Called Hope", by John Lahr, April 24, 2008, at [3]
  6. Frank Rich, New York Times political columnist, in the "Sunday Opinion" article "Memorial Day at 'South Pacific' ", May 25, 2008, at [4]
  7. Time magazine, "New Musical in Manhattan", April 18, 1949, at [5]
  8. Newsweek magazine, April 7, 2008, "The Theatre of War", at [6]
  9. Time magazine, "South Pacific is Back on Broadway... Finally", April 3, 2008, at [7]
  10. His complete review of April 8, 1949, can be found at [8]
  11. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1966, page 137
  12. "Optimist Awash in the Tropics," by Ren Brantley, in the "Weekend Arts" section of the New York Times, page B1, April 4, 2008. The full review can be found at [9]
  13. New York Daily News, April 4, 2008, at [10]


The World Almanac and Book of Facts, New York, 1966, New York World-Telegram