`South Pacific' takes Broadway by storm

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The Independent Culture
On 7 April 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein premiered their new musical on Broadway. Their 1943 hit Oklahoma! had run for a record 2,212 performances; Carousel (1945) made it to 890. But their 1947 collaboration, Allegro, had managed only 315 performances, and had received muted acclaim. Broadway, awash with a plethora of R&H imitators, was expectant.

Director Joshua Logan knew that James Michener's Pulitzer prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific (1947) would be the answer, and acquired the rights to the book. He and Hammerstein meshed together the stories of two love-affairs: between a middle-aged French planter and a young American nurse, and between an American lieutenant and a native girl. The opera star Ezio Pinza was recruited to play Emil de Becque, the planter with a past; Broadway starlet Mary Martin was to wash that man right out of her hair eight times a week.

Ecstatic reviews from the New Haven and Boston previews were followed by record-breaking advance ticket sales in New York. The show went on to gross $2.6m - smashing Show Boat's record - over its 1,925 performances; tales of what desperate people did to acquire a ticket became the talk of the town. And the critics couldn't contain themselves: "a magnificent musical drama ... a wonderfully talented show," enthused the New York Times, commending the "extraordinarily gifted" R&H for having "not forgotten how to apply the seat of the pants to the chair". The New York Post hailed it as "one of the finest musical plays in the history of American theatre"; the Herald Tribune called it "a show of rare enchantment".

South Pacific had great tunes ("Some Enchanted Evening" remains a classic) and a radical staging, incorporating the fluid scene-dissolves of cinema. The themes of cultural dislocation - naively treated - and the revaluation of prejudices struck a post-war chord: "a tenderly beautiful idyll of genuine people inexplicably tossed together in a strange corner of the world", said the New York Times.

When the musical opened in London, at Drury Lane in November 1951, a different kind of culture clash was evident. Transatlantic hype and a raft of prizes (a Pulitzer among them) had ensured more record-breaking advance sales - the first-night reviews sniffed at the audience's unbridled enthusiasm. The setting was a problem - "we can't forget that it's not our men fighting" (Express) - and as a musical, it came off badly in comparison with Oklahoma! Only the Sunday Times's Harold Hobson found it "the best of American musicals".

Subsequent revivals have met with reservations. A 1987 New York production revealed that the story was "creaky and obvious" (Daily News) and "soft-headed" (Newsday). And, classic tunes apart, the reactions of the original London critics seem to have been justified by posterity: Gemma Craven starred in a largely forgettable 1988 production at the Prince of Wales.