Once you have seen it, never let it go…

The following column is a reworking of a piece Les Solomon wrote for AussieTheatre when South Pacific was first announced for the Sydney Winter season last October. 

South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Lisa McCune as Nellie. Image by Kurt Sneddon

South Pacific has arrived back in Sydney at last. A glorious remounting by an all Australian cast of the remarkable version that enjoyed a three year run at Lincoln Center in New York.

This production is a crowning achievement after a very, very poor theatre year for musicals in this country (lets not go into them, we all know what they are, or more specifically… were)

This is the production that will make every theatre lover want  to rush back to the theatre, my tip is that it will be with us in one state or another in Australia for a very long time. Gloriously directed by Bartlett Sher and Associate Neil Rutherford with a starry top drawer cast, this production equals and in some ways betters the beautiful original production that charmed America and later London in the last few years.

The truth is, South Pacific is a classic; it is considered one of the almighty classics that displays more perfection in its writing and score than most musicals of its own, or for that matter, any period.

I am unapologetically a fan of most of the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein and I believe their musicals stand the test of time more than many written in recent years. This has been proven by the amount of fine directors who have given new life to them in a variety of productions – none more so than South Pacific. It deals with racism head-on in a way that no musicals before (and few since) have done. Bartlett Sher  toughened up the book and really highlighted the subject of racism for this production more than any previous version.

Oscar Hammerstein was a writer and lyricist well ahead of his time and he and Richard Rodgers were enshrouded by much criticism and controversy due to the way they tackled the issue of race bias in this show. The song ‘Carefully Taught’, is, I believe one of the greatest songs ever written for the stage.

Daniel Koek and Celina Yuen in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Daniel Koek and Celina Yuen in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon

Concise and perfectly structured, the two minute song of sheer genius conveys a message so timely that it should be on the desks of every politician and person in office anywhere in the world. When the character of Lt Cable sings it in the show, he sums up his racial bias, the racial bias of the other major character in the show, (namely Nellie Forbush, who breaks up a relationship because of her racist beliefs) and it is the song which is the theme and the central focus of the musical.

When it was first included in the show, there was a tide of criticism and an attempt to remove it, yet the authors stood firm and it is believed it is one of the reasons the musical received the Pulitzer Prize that year.

Barlett Sher has no qualms accentuating the racism of his two central WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) characters. The famous movie skimmed over it a little and several other productions fail to hit the nail on the head when Nellie realises her potential husband has not only had sexual relations but was married to an islander woman.

“She was… coloured” Nellie cries in utmost horror at the end of Act One when she hears Emile De Becque introduce his two young islander children. What is this? Our little-hometown little-rock heroine, our virginal princess who can do no wrong is suddenly tarred with an ugly and unpleasant brush.

It takes most of Act two for audiences in this version to forgive Nellie for that moment and it is only when the character makes her powerful and dramatic statement realising her small minded mistake and begging for the life of the man she loves, that an audience can accept her again.

John O'May and Tod Strike. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Radioshack – John O’May and Tod Strike as officers in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon

Similarly, the character of Cable rejects the beautiful islander girl Liat as someone he could not possibly marry and take back home to small town America as his wife. He has a quicker and more passionate realisation of his mistake, but sadly doesn’t live to give his girl the happy ending she deserves.

These themes were so ahead of their time in small minded post-war America when the show opened in 1949. Yet they reflected a change in attitude which would be demonstrated in many musicals during the years to come.

The big criticism of South Pacific has often been that the second act falls away. Most of the important action occurs off-stage as De Becque and Cable hide from the Japanese and give information that changes the tide of the war to soldiers on the island. This is still something of a problem with the show, but this production moves these periods along very quickly with maximum suspense and tension.

Seeing this glorious production may well make audiences want to go back and watch the much loved original 1958 film version with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. This is the most known version, but comes across a little too coy and sentimental for today’s audiences (albeit the best looking version, scenery wise) . This version is highly controversial in that coloured filters used, supposedly as an experiment during filming, were later discovered as being impossible to be removed, much to the horror of director Josh Logan, who still refers to the scenes (mostly the songs) when whole sequences are over dosed with reds, pinks, greens and yellows, as the worst mistake of his movie directing life. See it again for yourself and see what you think.

And finally a brief history of this wonderful musical…

After its classic Broadway debut in 1949 starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pizza, it was first produced in the early fifites in Australia with a mostly imported cast (which was the way of the time). For movie buffs its interesting to note Mary La Roche played the role of Nellie (later in her career she played Ann Margret’s mother in the classic movie version of Bye Bye Birdie). This version did star local actor David Williams as Cable, who went on to great success in the Australian industry as an actor, producer and journalist. Chin Yu who was imported for the role of Liat, fell in love with her Cable, married him and the two lived and worked in Australia for the rest of their days. (Chin Yu Williams only died very recently).

Unlike Broadway who had to wait 52 years for a major stage revival, Australia has had two major productions, the John Frost 1994 version that starred (very controversially) a very imported Paige O’Hara as Nellie (for reasons no one could adequately explain) and Phillip Gould as Cable. John Diedrich starred in and simultaneously directed a 2004/5 scaled down version for the Production Company, which also starred Katrina Retallick as Nellie, April Marie Neho as Mary and Conrad Coleby (later Hayden Tee) as Cable. This version also played Sydney and Adelaide.

One final interesting local side note. Well before the recent revival, there was a one night only special 50th anniversary concert performed in New York in 1999. Many of the original Broadway cast were on stage and sang in this production. It starred George Hearn as Emile, Liz Callaway as Nellie and David Campbell as Cable!

Long may South Pacific continue to flourish, one of the truly great Broadway musicals of which there are few to even begin to come close to matching it these days. The Australian production is something for us all to be truly proud. Without sounding too much like a review, Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes are spectacular leads, Aussie expat Daniel Koek returns in great style as Cable and Kate Ceberano is a revelation as Bloody Mary just to name a few.

See it, again and again, it doesn’t get any better than this in every way.


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