Memorial Day Reflections on South Pacific

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On the Opinion Page today, New York Times columnist Frank Rich joins us to talk about his column, Memorial Day at 'South Pacific'. The Rogers and Hammerstein musical is the hottest ticket on Broadway right now, and as Rich points out, the show is unexpectedly poignant on Memorial Day:

Watching "South Pacific" now, we're forced to contemplate Iraq, which we're otherwise pretty skilled at avoiding. Most of us don't have family over there. Most of us long ago decided the war was a mistake and tuned out. Most of us have stopped listening to the president who ginned it up. This month, in case you missed it, he told an interviewer that he had made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up golf for the war's duration because "I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf."

"South Pacific" reminds us that those whose memory we honor - including those who served in - are always at the mercy of the leaders who send them into battle. It increases our admiration for the selflessness of Americans fighting in Iraq. They, unlike their counterparts in World War II, do their duty despite answering to a commander in chief who has been both reckless and narcissistic. You can't watch "South Pacific" without meditating on their sacrifices for this blunderer, whose wife last year claimed that "no one suffers more" over Iraq than she and her husband do.

Have you seen the show? If so, did you think of the two wars we're fighting today, in Afghanistan and Iraq?



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This written Op Ed piece on South Pacific is different from what was discussed on air about the new South Pacific revival on Talk of the Nation today. On air, you mentioned how the 1958 movie version was somehow toned down and sanitized from the stage version. I saw a stage version, a touring company in Illinois in the early 90's, and I don't remember it being all that different from the movie version -- the stage version had a very flat Nellie Forbush (whose only prior acting credit was being in a commercial), and had a very limited and unenthusiastic and barebones chorus of men and women. I would hope that the current Broadway version would look at doing bigger and more elaborate staging of the musical numbers with a larger chorus, taking more of a cue from the energy and enthusiasm that I remember from the movie version.
In terms of the race issue, and the issue that the movie is "sanitized," I think it is important to note how Rogers and Hammerstein themselves generally "sanitized" almost every story that they turned into a musical. The novel and movie "Anna and the King of Siam" has some more horrific scenes than R&H would ever want to do in "King and I" with the errant slave Tuptim and her lover being burned alive outside of Anna's cottage. The novel, "Flower Drum Song," is very dark, as I recall and ends unhappily, unlike the musical. And lest we not forget, "South Pacific" is based on Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," and is only one of the tales from that book. The story of Nellie Forbush and her French planter in Michener's book goes definitely beyond the race issue -- yes, Nellie was a naive and racist white girl from Arkansas, but in Michener's "tales," Nellie's French planter had a harem of Polynesian women with whom he had a large passle of mixed race children. For Nellie, it was not just the racial mixing that bothered her -- it was the harem aspect. In Michener, the big romance went sour, and Nellie's wide eyed innocence was torn asunder, and her story was just one short chapter in his book. With R&H, the French planter was sanitized and made more acceptable to traditional monogamous white bread American audiences -- he had just 2 children (a boy and a girl), with one woman whom he married. And though they had their ups and downs, R&H took Nellie's romance to a more hopeful conclusion. I thought that Nellie and the French planter holding hands in the movie version was powerful too, just as powerful as in the play version.
Michener had other tales though in which he dealt more directly as I recall with the irony of American racial issues -- of African American men who fought and died for our country in WW2, only to come back to an America which continued then to segregate and discriminate against African Americans, in contradiction of our basic American values of freedom, justice and fairness.
Race issues need to be confronted today, at home and on our war fronts, and on many levels. This issue needs further exploration, and if South Pacific (and Obama's campaign) helps us all explore the substance of our country's race issues, then that's what is most important about South Pacific's revival.

Sent by Tim | 1:47 AM | 5-27-2008

Say, can anyone tell me what Nelly said in South Pacific productions for the last 60 years, after "colored" was cut from the show, but before the current production restored the word to the script?

Sent by Kevin | 8:08 PM | 6-22-2008

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