What is it about the musical South Pacific that makes it as enjoyable today as it was back in 1949 when it opened to one of the most critic-delirious receptions in theater history?
It is the music, of course, with memorable songs such as ‘Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali H’ai.” Happy Talk,” I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”
There is a lot more, too, and, with all the attention to the rights of Pacific Islanders in politic, the play resonates today with just as much power as it did in 1949. People can discover, and re-discover, South Pacific, based on the James Michener book Tales of the South Pacific when the musical arrives at the Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC) in Morristown, for performances on Friday, May 13 at 8:00pm and Saturday, May 14 at 2:00pm & 8:00pm.
“I think the success of the play over the years is that it is a ‘classic’ as a story and a ‘classic’ for its music, too. People will not just talk abut its songs, but its’ emotional story, and there is a lot of emotion in the story,” said Maris McCulley, who plays nurse Nellie Forbush in the show. “It’s never just the music.”
She landed the role of Nellie, one of musical theater’s best roles, because several years ago she was in a play run by many of these same people and they started talking about South Pacific. She got the role.
“Oh, then right when we were ready to go on tour, the Pandemic hit and the whole show was cancelled – no tour. Now, COVID pushed to the sidelines a bit, the tour is back,” said McCulley.
She always liked the idea of a play set in the Pacific during World War II. “What better setting for a love story?” she asked.
Me, I was always fascinated by the islands in the South Pacific because as a kid I saw the movie, set in Tahiti, on television. Then I fell in love with movies about World War II. South Pacific fulfilled all of my dreams, and then some. The South Pacific is a dreamland, full of gorgeous sand beaches, palm trees, huge rolling waves and coconuts. But, as we are reminded in the musical, it was also the setting for some of the fiercest fighting in World War II.
James Michener, stationed in the South Pacific during the war to write a book for the Navy, wrote Tales of the South Pacific as a collection of 19 short stories, some of them loosely based on true events and real people. The genius of the play is how lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rodgers sewed all of those stories together, creating memorable characters and tying the knots of the plot with that gorgeous music, and made it a very lovable story and a love story in the middle of combat at the same time..
The plot is simple yet complex. A bunch of exuberant young American sailors stationed on an island there come under the spell of an island woman named Bloody Mary on the beautiful island of Bali H’ai, with its tall mountains and deep jungles, and meet her young woman friends there. Meanwhile, a young American nurse, Nellie Forbush, played by McCulley, falls love with an older man, a local French planter named Emile De Becque, who has two dark skinned children from his late Polynesian wife. The musical follows the love story of Nellie and Emile and a young sailor who meets an island girl on Bali H’ai, plus the story of the fighting in the South Pacific against the Japanese, with a heart-in-your-throat finale.
“One of the wonders of the musical, to me, is that you are aware of all this vicious fighting, and yet you never see any of it. That shows you how the people who wrote and produced the play years ago were so adept at telling you a war story without actually showing you a war,” said Maris.
The play was groundbreaking in 1949 with the mixed race romances and families and racist language, all done in a progressive effort by Rodgers and Hammerstein to bridge the racial gap in the South Pacific and here in America. The race questions in the play are as strong today as they were back in 1949.
“I think the play is honest in its discussion about race. It’s a love story about people from different countries and islands and colors and it works,” said the actress.
The musical was a roaring success in 1949, winning ten Tony Awards. It was revived on Broadway in 2008 and that time took seven Tony Awards. The music in the play was one of the top selling Broadway albums for years and, as everybody knows, several of the songs, such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” have become classics.
Maris had never seen the play itself, so she watched a taped version of is borrowed from the perform in arts at Lincoln Center.
Interestingly, “Some Enchanted Evening” is not her favorite song from the musical. Her favorite is a tie between “A Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun,” sung at a Thanksgiving gala on the war torn island.
It’s not just that she likes “Honey Bun.”
Long pause. “When I was a kid, 12 or so, I sang ‘Honey Bun’ at a school music recital. I always liked it and really love singing it in this show. It’s a nice throwback, a warm memory, for me,” Maris said.
Well, everybody I know loves “Some Enchanted Evening” and it will be one to listen to it again at South Pacific.
Tickets are available for purchase online. Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC) is located at 100 South Street in Morristown, New Jersey.
Photos by Felix Rodriguez