How many of you have seen or at least heard of the 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific? This week’s THROWBACK THURSDAY is taking a look at the 10 time Tony award winning musical that has resonated with audience members for decades. The show was last revived in 2008, taking home 7 Tony awards while featuring Kelli O’Hara (currently in Bridges of Madison County) and Matthew Morrison (Glee).
1. Another R&H hit musical based on a book!
The dynamic duo of the Golden Age really had it figured out with these book and play adaptations (Carousel and Oklahoma were based on plays while State Fair, Cinderella, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, and The King and I were based on books). South Pacific is based on 2 short stories form the 1947 book Tales of South Pacific by Pulitzer Prize-winner James A. Michener. The short stories collected in Michener’s book are based on his experience as a US Navy lieutenant commander on what is now Vanuatu and Espiritu Santo. The two stories that inspired the musical are called Fo’ Dollah and Our Heroine. If you’re curious, you can check the book out from the NY Public Library HERE.
2. Non-Traditional casting of the ethnic characters.
As many of you may know, South Pacific is set on a Polynesian island. There are very strong racial themes in the musical, and, thus, there are several Polynesian characters including Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman, and her daughter Liat. Well, African-American singer Juanita Hall originated the role of Bloody Mary, and white actress Betta St. John played Liat. I guess it must have been tough to find Polynesian Broadway stars in the 1940s!
3. The ensemble had to costume themselves!
The ensemble mainly consisted of nurses and naval officers in the original production. The men were each given $50 and sent off to find costume pieces for their character on 42nd street at the military surplus shops. Can you imagine that happening today?! Accounting for inflation, that’d be the equivalent of giving each actor about $500 to costume themselves in 2014.
4. Rogers and Hammerstein VS Racism
South Pacific doesn’t shy away from showing the ugliness of racism and bigotry. Remember this opened in 1949! R&H were actually advised to make certain changes during the tryouts in New Haven (specifically to get rid of the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”) because of the bigotry common in certain cities at the time (i.e. Boston). Atlanta government officials even accused their work of being communist-inspired. R&H stood their ground and even threatened to cancel the touring performance in Wilmington, Delaware if they didn’t integrate the seating for the production. Guess what? They won that fight!
5. Only 2 actors in the 1958 film actually sang in the film
The majority of the cast in the 1958 film adaptation of the stage musical were dubbed during their songs. Juanita Hall reprised her role as Bloody Mary, but her songs were dubbed by African-American actress Murial Smith, who played the role in London. Thurl Ravenscroft, known as the voice of Tony the Tiger and the voice behind the original “You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch,” dubbed the songs for the character Stewpot.
Check out the song that caused such an uproar in this clip from the 1958 film:
Were you able to see the 2008 revival of South Pacific? Did you know about Rogers and Hammerstein’s anti-racism stance in the work? What do you think of the casting choice for the Polynesian characters? Scroll down to share your thoughts in the comments below!