Monday, May 17, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Confused by Paradise" (on South Pacific)


by Douglas Messerli

Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener) South Pacific / New York, Majestic Theatre, August 7, 1949

Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Paul Osborn (book, based on the musical Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener), Joshua Logan (director) South Pacific [film] / 1958

Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener) South Pacific / New York, Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont / the performance I attended was on May 9, 2008

Whenever I think of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals other than the early and more energized Oklahoma! (see My Year 2003) I feel slightly claustrophobic, as if their often sugary, sweet songs and sensibilities had stuck to my skin. Certainly I recognize Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I  as great musicals, and I’ve watched the movie versions of these works countless times; but by the time of the megahit The Sound of Music (a musical I endured for several weeks of rehearsal and performances in the role of Max in high school) I could scarcely tolerate their work (I have seen the Julie Andrews movie only twice!); their Chinese-American travesty, Flower Drum Song, seems to me an embarrassment!

How could I resist, however, a revival of South Pacific—50 years after the motion picture and nearly 60 years after its original Broadway production—at Lincoln Center Theatre at Vivien Beaumont Theater, described by The New York Times: “I know we’re not supposed to expect perfection in the imperfect world, but I’m darned if I can find one serious flaw in this production.”? Even at the scalper’s price of $240—twice the listed ticket price—I was willing to put up and shut up, despite the fact that some of my friends, including Charles Bernstein, who reported he shared my reservations about the noted music-writing duo, may have felt I had fallen into some childhood reverie.

From the moment the curtain rises on two beautiful, supposedly Polynesian-French children singing “Dites-Moi,” the audience perceives that they have entered another world, a world—intimated, in this production, by the written passage by original author James Michener upon the scrim—of enormous beauty and utter strangeness, where an old woman, whom we later discover as Bloody Mary, attempts to sell the sailors human heads on an ocean beach that looks out upon a stunningly beautiful volcanic island in the distance. This is, indeed, an enchanted world, but also a world of strangers, a “crowded room”—a theater of war—wherein different cultures encounter one another.

Nellie Forbush is all in a flutter about finding the perfect man (a cultured Western European), and is even able to accept Emile de Becque’s explanation of why he is a “murderer”—after all, he killed a “bully.” Yet, it soon becomes intolerable to her that he has embraced a culture truly foreign to her, along with a Tonkinese wife, with whom he has produced the two beautiful children with which the musical begins!

The whole of American history, I would argue, might be summarized by various issues relating to our ability to assimilate almost any form of violence while being absolutely unable to accept any, but the most conventional, forms of love!

By the second scene, where the all-male chorus, who, unlike the officers, are trapped in sexual isolation (they are not permitted to fraternize with the ensigns and the French planters have placed their daughters on isolated islands) sing their paean to the special and irreplaceable qualities of the opposite sex, I came to recognize that at the heart of this work is not sexual longing—albeit something that is clearly in evidence throughout the musical—as much as the sexual innocence, along with the spiritual and intellectual innocence the Americans represent.

For the Seabees and Sailors, Bloody Mary—an earth-mother perhaps, but a poor imitation of female beauty (whose skin is as tender, we are told, as "DiMaggio's glove)—is their only available associate (“Bloody Mary is the girl I love…, now ain’t that too damn bad!). And when they sing of their sexual longing, the opposite sex is not represented by a full-bodied woman, but through the American slang word, representing a diminished notion of the sex, a “dame” (or, contrarily, if one defines the word as do the British, some one of higher position, and therefore out of their reach).

Nellie, moreover, immediately describes herself as a “hick,” and later reiterates that she is “corny as Kansas in August,” “normal as blueberry pie,” that she is a knucklehead, a “cockeyed optimist”—in short, out of sorts with the world in which she has discovered herself. As if we needed further evidence of separation, actor Kelli O’Hara speaks in a convincing southern twang (the actor was born in the South) which forces us to realize just how out of place she and the Americans are in this tropical paradise, how confused they are in being confined to such a heavenly spot. These Americans, obviously, are the terrifying innocents of Blake and, centuries later, of Graham Greene, a folk who, while pretending to embrace the world, shun everything outside themselves or often destroy or displace what they cannot comprehend—while sanctimoniously boasting of their malady.

Throughout South Pacific, however, we get evidence of cracks in that wall of sexual “normality.” In their isolation, the all-male chorus comes to define the homoerotic nature of much of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, a situation underlined in the Lincoln Center production by Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, wherein several of his male dancers cavort with each other, posing in positions of the opposite sex.

Seabee Luther Billis—who beautifully washes and irons Nellie’s clothes (he’s especially good with the pleats), cleverly weaves native skirts, prefers the all-male boar’s-tooth ceremony to the other sites of Bali Ha’i (even when he does embrace a woman, it is during a religious ceremony), and later performs as Nellie Forbush’s “girlfriend” Honey Bun—is much ridiculed as a representative of a love that not only cannot speak its name, but in the World War II atmosphere of the writing, suffers no language with which one could even ask.

The “saxy lieutenant,” Joe Cable, who Bloody Mary picks out for her beautiful daughter Liat, is also an innocent—so innocent that he cannot even imagine that Mary might have a daughter, as if Liat were of virgin birth—and, enveloped in innocence, is only too ready to copulate with the young girl, who the story hints, is not even of (American) legal age. He is unable to embrace the idea, moreover, that in the morality of Tonkinese culture such an act might be understood as a prelude to marriage! As Bloody Mary describes him, he is indeed a "stingy bastard."

While Nellie tries to convince herself that the irrationality of racism is somehow natural and innate, Joe recognizes it is something learned, a thing “carefully taught,” which he expresses in one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most politically aware songs of their career, which for me washes away some of that sticky residue of their sentimental songs better than Nellie is able to wash her would-be lover “out of her hair.”

For James Michener and, consequently, Hammerstein and Logan, the only solution to such a crisis is to follow Papa Hemmingway’s lead and send the male characters on a hunting expedition, in this case a search for Japanese naval movements in the neighboring islands. Despite their moral outrage against racism, the writers sacrifice Joe Cable—if he survives, he, after all, is now ready to marry Liat—allowing the Frenchman de Becque to return to the wiser Nellie, ready to forgive him his earlier racial “transgression,” and to embrace both his children and life.

For all my seeming sarcasm, however, by musical’s end most of the characters have the potential for change. Despite the violence around them, love has altered their lives, and those who return home will hopefully arrive as figures—like the leading characters of this work—transformed by the culture(s) they have been forced to face, a fact that could not have been made clearer than in the Lincoln Center’s production of the penultimate scene, where the soldiers, gathered in military formation, march off—not to the strains of some patriotic anthem, as one might expect, but to the quietly chanted lyrics of the absurd love-song “Honey Bun”: “A hundred and one pounds of fun, That’s my little Honey Bun. Get a load of Honey Bun tonight.”

New York, May 10, 2008 

  If in my statements above I sound highly critical of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, I should assert that my feelings about their work were not always so ambivalent. As a child I was quite enthusiastic about their early musicals. In 1956, for example, my parents took me, without my six-year-old brother and three-year-old sister, to a drive-in movie showing of Carousel. Despite what I thought—even at nine years of age—was a rather kitsch opening scene—with Billy Bigelow shining up the stars of heaven—I loved the movie, particularly since it presented a tragic viewpoint rather than a primarily comic one. Although I had difficulties imagining how a petty thief who commits suicide had gotten through the pearly gates, I recognized in his early “Soliloquy,” that Billy basically was a loving, well-meaning being who simply wound up in the wrong company. What I didn’t know then was that in the original Molnar play, Liliom—upon which Carousel was based—Billy was condemned to Hell for slapping his daughter, even though, as in the musical version, she claims that the slap felt like a kiss.

Carousel clearly was an important influence on my continued love of American musical theater. So enchanted was I with musicals that the same year, having glimpsed the trailer of The King and I in the Paramount Movie Theater in downtown Cedar Rapids (a building flooded this year by the Cedar River), for years I was convinced that I had seen the whole movie—such was the power of even a few scenes.

Los Angeles, August 4, 2008

(c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli

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