Saturday, May 23, 2009

Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific"

In these last weeks I have been viewing the whole of what I had known up till then only in parts. First, Godot, then Superman, and last Thursday, with TCH, South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont. I like musicals, but am not a devotee, and so was surprised to learn from the program that familiar songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Ha'i," A Wonderful Guy," and "Happy Talk" come from South Pacific. The music, by Richard Rodgers, is unabashedly popular. The lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein II, derive their staying power from coming close to cliche, but never quite crossing over into it. They are not clever, like Sondheim's, but they cleave to the ear.

Emile de Becque, the French planter who fell in love with a young American nurse, was played by William Michals, the understudy for Paulo Szot. Michals sang with a great deal of power and warmth, but his romance with Ensign Nellie Forbush was not convincing. The difficulty is inherent in the plot, but perhaps a more charismatic actor could have compelled our assent. Laura Osnes, as Nellie, was all ditzy Little Rock, and her lack of substance made the romance even flimsier. Andrew Samonsky was a tall, lean, golden Lt. Joseph Cable who fell in love with a Tonkinese girl, Liat. His vulnerability was made palpable by a sweet voice teetering on manhood, but since his commitment to his military mission was not believable, he became a sacrifice less to military idealism than to the allure of the exotic. 

The two comic characters were entertaining. Danny Burstein was an energetic Luther Billis, the eternal entrepreneur you find in every military camp. Loretta Ables Sayre played Bloody Mary, the mother of Liat, with a dark obsessiveness. I enjoyed the production very much (the atmospheric set should get a mention here), but did not think it was as great as reviews had made it out to be. I was far more captivated by the musical spectacle when I first watched Les Miserables, and even Wicked

Despite its criticism of racial prejudice, the musical is orientalist in that it exoticizes the Other. Bloody Mary is a primitive type. Liat, the beautiful daughter, does not speak at all. While the Westerners Emile and Nellie find happiness (after Nellie gets rid of her prejudice and looks after Emile's Tonkinese children), Joseph rejects Liat finally in favor of family, country and mission, and dies. Joseph's love for Liat fleshes out Emile's earlier love for his Tonkinese wife, but the younger couple's separation determines a downward trajectory, despite the miraculous resurrection of Emile to assure a happy ending. 

And yet I did not find the musical's orientalism upsetting. Partly because the musical is so obviously a product of its time, and for a product of its time, its anti-racist message is a little ahead of its time. Partly because a musical is a musical, and it's easy to take too seriously a genre that does not take itself too seriously. Partly because, I suspect, I am not Tonkinese. The South Pacific appears rather exotic to this Singaporean, an islander of a very different stripe. 

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