“Oh, and then there’s this one: [sings first phrase of ‘This Nearly Was Mine’].” “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean that’s from South Pacific?” “Um, it’s only, like, the best song in the whole show.” “Wow. You know I’ve had that song on my mind for, like, most of my life. Decades. And I’ve just now realized that I never knew where it came from.”
This is the kind of intensive social research you commit to when writing a blog about listening across the whole span of recorded history. The bit of conversation reported above, which I had with a colleague a few days ago after mentioning that I was writing about South Pacific this week, points to the way that the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein have stayed lodged in the collective consciousness of several successive generations of Americans, even when they don’t fully realize it. They’re part of the soundtrack of our formative years, warp and weft of our musical identity, and therefore become a music of nostalgia. As you grow up musically, this sounds like a cache of kitsch that nevertheless stirs genuine pangs of longing. It’s as if all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals inhabit a “special island,” whispering “Come to me, come to me.”
I’ve been on a bit of an “island music” kick recently, so much so that I’ve decided to add a category for it to Sound Trove. Steel band music from Trinidad, music shaped by a childhood in Cuba, by contemplation of the Canary Islands, by poetry on New Zealand. But this time it’s different. South Pacific directly deals in all the things a music scholar reads about—exoticism, colonialism, musical tourism. Sticky wickets abound. For instance. . .
The role of Bloody Mary, mother of Liat, the Tonkinese love interest of American Lt. Joseph Cable, was played in both the original Broadway production and the 1958 film by Juanita Hall. I’m listening to the original Broadway cast recording, one of the joys of which is reading the album notes, so here’s what the notes say about Hall: “. . .formerly was associated with the Hall Johnson Choir as soloist and as associate director. She later founded the Juanita Hall Choir.” Hall (1901-68), born in New Jersey and eventually trained at Juilliard, was also an African American, but when Richard Rodgers heard her, he wanted her cast in the role of the Tonkinese mother (and, later, in the role of Madam Liang in Flower Drum Song).
When, at the end of “Happy Talk”—during which Bloody Mary is overseeing and encouraging her daughter Liat’s love scene with American Lieutenant Joseph Cable—she asks playfully (and/or cloyingly), “Is good idea? You like?” it may increasingly concern listeners that this question is posed by a black American delivering lines in broken English to suggest a South Asian as written by white American males. Does it further complicate matters to point out that Hall was the first African American to receive a Tony (in 1950, for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical), for that very role? Does it complicate them further to point out that Rodgers, who had wanted Hall for the role on Broadway, asked that her voice be overdubbed when the film of South Pacific was made? (Bloody Mary is sung in the film by an uncredited Muriel Smith, the first African American to attend the Curtis Institute of Music.)
Consider some of the layers of racial politics here: those embedded in the source material for the story—that is, American soldiers’ experiences in South Asia during and after the Second World War; those found in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, the source for the musical; those found in Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s adaptation; those found in the casting of the Broadway production of South Pacific; those found in the writing and casting of the 1958 film; our own in 2018. We can’t untangle it. It’s a mess. It seems clear that by casting an African American for a major Broadway production at a time when Broadway was segregated, Rodgers and others thought of themselves as activists to some extent. Beyond that simple point, pursuing the tale of appropriation, misrepresentation, and racial in/justice represented by South Pacific looks a pretty bewildering enterprise, so much so that we might do well to forsake the whole thing were it not for. . .
“Bali Ha’————–i may call you any night, any day.” When Juanita Hall lands on that F sharp on Ha, all the longing to reach the island of your dreams, the music of your distant past, is hauled up from the depths of the murky subconscious. This can’t help but remind me of the raised fourth scale degree of “Maria” in West Side Story: also clashing with the tonic chord, also landing on the strong beat of the bar, also suggesting the longed-for “other.” Of course, it’s Tony who sings about his longing in “Maria,” whereas Bloody Mary is voicing the island itself in South Pacific. Her unforgettable line, with its “exotic” raised fourth, links exotic landscape with the world of dreams, the female voice with unspoken desires. All this is very familiar to fans of nineteenth-century opera, echoing links between desire and the “exotic” in Carmen and particularly Madama Butterfly.
In some ways that’s unfair to Carmen and Butterfly. Both feature male protagonists who are deeply troubled. Don José, violent and jealous, ends up winning few friends in the audience when he murders the object of his desire; Pinkerton, selfish and ignorant, similarly makes himself a villain by leaving Cio-Cio-san in a situation where suicide is her best option. The men are not unsullied heroes; they’re weak and small and make life worse for others. So in a sense the longing called up by Bizet and Puccini in Carmen and Butterfly is shown to be a fruitless creation of witless men, their untutored desire a path to destruction that calls into question the entire exotic mode.
South Pacific, while adopting these “exotic” markers almost unquestioningly, nevertheless deploys them amid a more complicated set of relationships. For example, male desire is often not exhibited in association with “exotic” music, but in group performances of American popular music: “Bloody Mary,” though about mock-desire, is nevertheless an introduction to the knot of male sexual frustration that is at its most overt in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and is satirized by Nurse Nellie in the drag burlesque of “Honey Bun.” It is against the backdrop of that collective expression of desire that the more nuanced stories of Liat/Cable and Nellie/Emil de Becque play out. And speaking of Emil de Becque. . .
It is he, the French planter with French-Tonkinese children, who sings “This Nearly Was Mine,” that song long lodged in the subconscious vault of my colleague. In the original Broadway production de Becque was played by Italian bass Ezio Pinza, who by that point in his career had just finished his twenty-second and final season at the Met (1926-48). There’s certainly something “other” about his voice, then, in the context of South Pacific: he’s the suave European sculpting vocal lines amid impulsive jabs of the American brash. Approximately, anyway. His musical “othering” doesn’t end there. Given an opportunity to work with an operatic vocalist, Rodgers and his orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), made the orchestra do more than boom-chuck-chuck. In “Some Enchanted Evening,” de Becque’s first-act “aria,” the strings sometimes echo his lines in a sort of canon, providing the “voice” of his dreamed-of duet partner. Then, in “This Nearly Was Mine,” at my favorite moment of the entire musical, the melody from “Some Enchanted Evening” starts to answer de Becque in the English horn but is cut off, never to return. The dream of finding love is “nearly” achieved, and then disappears forever. In the Finale, “Some Enchanted Evening” gets its reprise, and Nurse Nellie Forbush sings in answer to de Becque. His dream comes true, and he even gets a money note to prove it. The serious problem—that Nellie, from Little Rock, A.R.K., had to overcome her deep-seated prejudice against de Becque’s “mixed-race” children—is solved. Nellie and de Becque’s story seems to tell us that life is complicated and far from perfect, but if we’re very fortunate, we learn to see that imperfection is beautiful because it’s life.
Lt. Cable is not so fortunate, of course. He chooses to leave Liat, remembering his “girl back home,” but then makes the decision to go on a mission so dangerous that it kills him. This is a kind of anti-Butterfly, where Pinkerton’s stand-in is the one who kills himself out of grief, and Liat must go on living with the burden of memory. Rodgers gives Cable (performed by William Tabbert) a beautiful song, “Younger Than Springtime,” a parallel to de Becque’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” But Liat is voiceless in the song: the character never sings a note, and the orchestra never stands in for her. How could it work out when the orchestra won’t even acknowledge her?
You know how it is: So much more to say, and so many records. . .