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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tonight, one of the most popular musicals of all time opens in its first Broadway revival. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" debuted not long after the end World War II.

And as Jeff Lunden reports, nearly 60 years later the people putting on this revival find the musical as resonant as ever.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN: When "South Pacific" opened on April 7th, 1949, its World War II story and setting was ripped from the headlines, says musical theater historian Larry Maslon.

Mr. LARRY MASLON (Musical Theater Historian): Every single person that night in April knew someone who'd been in World War II. Every second person must have known someone who was in the South Pacific in World War II. And I would imagine at least every fourth person knew someone who died in World War II. And that's very potent, I think, for an audience.

LUNDEN: The show had more than topicality going for it. In a candy wrapper of romance, comedy and exoticism, the creators — composer Richard Rodgers; lyricist and co-author Oscar Hammerstein; and director and co-author Joshua Logan — presented a story that questioned core American values including issues of race and power.

Bartlett Sher directs the revival.

Mr. BARTLETT SHER (Director, "South Pacific"): I was always moved by this group of American artists in the '40s encountering this first major experience of American military power overseas and what it did to people. So, Bally(ph) highness, as we call it, was much different than I thought. You know, what happens when somebody from Philadelphia and somebody from Arkansas get dropped into this new world, and they have to question everything about who they are and everything about who they think they were and what they believe.

LUNDEN: "South Pacific" is based on a book of short stories by James Michener derived from his own experiences as a Navy lieutenant. The original production was a phenomenon. It ran for close to five years, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, as well as eight Tony Awards, and spawned a chart-topping original cast album and an extremely popular film version — which is how most people now know it.

Mr. JAMES MICHENER (Author, "Tales of the South Pacific"): This is my favorite musical. It always has been, and I think it always will be.

LUNDEN: Andre Bishop is the artistic director of the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theatre. The company has gone for broke with "South Pacific" featuring the cast of 40 actors and an orchestra of 30. Bishop thinks the investment is worth it.

Mr. ANDRE BISHOP (Director, Lincoln Center Theatre): The show appeals to people because of what is it about. It's about loneliness. It's about love. It's about war, though, in fact, it's mostly about people waiting to go to war. It's about people of different cultures coming together and attempting to find a common language.

(Soundbite of musical play "South Pacific")

Mr. PAULO SZOT (Actor): (As Emile de Becque) (Singing) Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger, you may see a stranger…

LUNDEN: Brazilian-born bass Paulo Szot plays Emile de Becque, the French planter who falls in love with nurse Nellie Forbush. He says the show is in the audience's DNA.

Mr. SZOT: The audience is here very connected and it's very close to us. They know the songs. And I can almost feel when I sing, for example "Some Enchanted Evening," that they are singing with me.

LUNDEN: Tony-nominated actress Kelli O'Hara plays Nellie Forbush. The young Army nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas.

(Soundbite of musical play "South Pacific")

Ms. KELLI O'HARA (Actress, Singer): (As Nellie Forbush) (Singing) I'm as corny as Kansas in August. I'm as normal as blueberry pie. No more a smart little girl with no heart. I have found me a wonderful guy.

LUNDEN: Nellie may joyously fall in love with a wonderful guy, but she's also forced to confront her own prejudice. She's shocked to find out Emile de Becque has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman, and breaks off her engagement. Kelli O'Hara says it's a difficult emotion to play in 2008.

Ms. O'HARA: I hear people gasping when I use the word colored, which I expected. But at that time, they didn't even need to say the word colored, they didn't need any of that. The audience knew what the problem was. We actually have to over-explain it, because everyone else would just be confused.

And so, when we do explain it in this audience, you hear people audibly gasping. And that makes me feel dirty. I want to take a shower.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'HARA: I want to apologize but I don't because I think that's what gets us to the end of the play. And that's why it's so rewarding.

LUNDEN: It's not just Nellie who deals with race. In the musical subplot, Lieutenant Cable, the son of a proper Philadelphia family, falls in love with a Tonkinese girl named Liat.

Director Bartlett Sher says Cable is the only character in "South Pacific" who has actually seen combat.

Mr. SHER: He can't avoid the fact that he's been around so much death, and been so transformed by that experience that when he sees somebody so beautiful and so full of life, he's pulled in by that.

(Soundbite of musical play "South Pacific")

Mr. MATTHEW MORRISON (Actor, Singer): (As Lieutenant Cable) (Singing) Younger than springtime, are you? Softer than starlight, are you? Warmer than…

LUNDEN: But Cable can't bring himself to marry Liat because of his own cultural upbringing. And he's disgusted by his failure to overcome it, singing the angry song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

(Soundbite of musical play "South Pacific")

Mr. MORRISON: (As Lieutenant Cable) (Singing) You've got to be taught to hate and fear. You've got to be taught, from year to year. It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught.

LUNDEN: The song was controversial in 1949. Author James Michener ran into some friends after the New Haven tryout, who said they loved the show but thought the song should be cut. So he met with Rodgers and Hammerstein the next day, says historian Larry Maslon.

Mr. MASLON: And Rodgers and Hammerstein said, well, we think if you cut that song, you cut the guts out of the show. And Michener said that's what I was hoping to hear because he agreed 101 percent.

LUNDEN: Maslon, who's written a coffee-table book about "South Pacific," says the show is so carefully constructed that even the upbeat, vernacular songs for the Seabees - the Naval Construction Brigade - underscored the clash of cultures.

Mr. MASLON: They sing about Pepsodent. They sing about DiMaggio. They sing this very American stuff. They say the word damn, which you didn't happen to have, ain't that too damn bad with plenty of notes. You didn't have into many shows back then. And so, it's almost like they're an American assault force of language and style.

(Soundbite of musical play "South Pacific")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Bloody Mary is the girl I love, now ain't that too damn bad.

LUNDEN: Bartlett Sher says "South Pacific" is more than a cultural artifact.

Mr. SHER: That's the best thing that classic can do, is it can return to us from our own past to give us lessons about the future, and it can give us a sense of both who we were and who we could become. And this thing accomplishes that. This extraordinary musical is filled with complexity and hope about the kind of country we can be.

LUNDEN: "South Pacific" opens at the Vivian Beaumont Theater tonight.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: At our Web site, you can hear composer Richard Rogers and star Mary Martin talk about working on the original production of "South Pacific," and you can listen to songs from the 1949 cast album. That's at npr.org.

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