Love and War and Racial Tension

Few collaborators have made such an impact on musical theatre as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers and Hammerstein are responsible for a plethora of Golden Age hits including Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Their musicals were groundbreaking for the time, centering on complex themes such as racism and domestic violence rather than being the star vehicles or glorified revues that had populated Broadway in the past. Say what you will about the Golden Age of Broadway (and even I’ve said plenty), but without Rodgers and Hammerstein pushing the envelope, we wouldn’t have Stephen Sondheim or Lin-Manuel Miranda to push it even further. In their impressive catalogue there is one show that I hold in higher regard than all their others, for it has what I consider a perfect score. That show is South Pacific.

South Pacific is based on a collection of short stories by James A. Michener. Its plot juxtaposes two stories: one about a white American nurse who loves a French expatriate but struggles to accept his mixed-race children, and one about a white American Marine who wrestles with society’s racist expectations and his love for a Tonkinese woman. The musical first opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949, and starred Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, William Tabbert, and Juanita Hall. The show was considered revolutionary for its depiction of racism and launched a souvenir craze unlike any Broadway had ever seen. Its original cast album spent a spectacular 400 weeks on the Billboard pop charts, 69 of which were at number one. That cast album is where I begin my South Pacific journey now.

The original Broadway poster.

With a cast as strong South Pacific‘s original cast, it should come as no surprise that the original Broadway cast album is jam-packed with terrific moments. Mary Martin is absolute perfection in the role of Nellie and she lets you know it from the very first note of “Cockeyed Optimist.” Both her and Ezio Pinza as Emile are going to be hard to beat, especially with his rich bass voice. His voice is best displayed on “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song that could be the gold standard for Broadway ballads. Juanita Hall shines as Bloody Mary as well. My one wish for this album is that recording technology was better able to capture the richness of the chorus numbers. Both “Bloody Mary” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” suffer here for it. That and the slower-than-I-would-like tempo of “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” are the only things that I would change about the original LP. The version I listened to also included bonus tracks that are mostly forgettable, except for Pinza’s incredible version of “Bali Ha’i.” I also enjoyed “Symphonic Scenario for Concert Orchestra,” although it’s essentially just a longer, smoother version of the orchestra.

The 1951 original London cast album is hard to track down, but it does exist! I promise. Mary Martin is back as Nellie, this time with Wilbur Evans as Emile, Muriel Smith as Bloody Mary, and Peter Grant as Lt. Cable. This is really a highlights album and plays out-of-order. There’s no chorus numbers, no “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and no “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” In fact, there’s very little Mary Martin at all; she only appears on Twin Soliloquies and the Finale. Talk about criminal underuse. It’s no wonder that this wasn’t released until 2012. It does make a nice showcase for Evans, Smith, and Grant though. You can go ahead and skip this one.

Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans in the original London production.

Up next is the 1958 film soundtrack. This is the album that first introduced me to South Pacific, so I may be a bit biased in its favor. The songs are in a different order than the stage version, but that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with different mediums. Mitzi Gaynor plays Nellie in the film and she does her own singing, which is very pleasant. Opera star Giorgio Tozzi provides Emile’s singing voice (Emile was played by Rossano Brazzi on screen) and you can tell he’s trained to belt on stage thanks to the amount of gusto he’s able to conjure when he wants to. When he doesn’t want to, however, his voice has almost a lullaby quality. An interesting casting choice is that while Juanita Hall plays Bloody Mary in the film just like she did in the original Broadway production, it’s the original London cast’s Bloody Mary, Muriel Smith, who performs her songs. In comparing the two’s original performances, I prefer Hall. So that decision strikes me as odd. But this is still a great album overall. The best part is that the chorus numbers are vastly improved compared to the original Broadway cast album. What a difference nine years makes! It’s also worth mentioning that “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” is performed at the correct speed. Finally.

It’s back to the stage we go, this time to the 1967 production at Lincoln Center. This album opens with a very strong overture before introducing us to Florence Henderson as Nellie and reintroducing us to Giorgio Tozzi as Emile. Both are great, with Tozzi improving from the film soundtrack and Henderson having a lot of fun in the role that comes through nicely on the recording. Actually, I was surprised at how brassy Henderson’s voice is. She kind of has a mild Ethel Merman quality, which I consider a good thing. I have to say that Irene Byatt would be my favorite Bloody Mary yet, had I not discovered that she is a white woman playing a woman of color. That’s going to be a mark against this one.

Florence Henderson as Nellie.

It’s over 20 years before another South Pacific cast album is released, that being the 1988 London cast album. Like its British predecessor, it is fairly lackluster. I will say that Gemma Craven gives us the most emotive Nellie we’ve yet heard, which is nice. She’s definitely the highlight here, especially on “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun,” but everything else is just ok. The chorus numbers are especially disappointing, and it sounds like the chorus itself is considerably smaller than in earlier productions. Once again, I think you can skip this London cast album.

We’re staying in London for the 2002 Royal National Theatre cast album and to say I was unexcited to listen is an understatement. But from the very first bar of the prologue, I knew that this was going to be a different South Pacific. The spectacular orchestrations set far less of a pop music tone than any of the previous albums and this one also packs in plenty of dialogue, which brings you into the story and highlights the racial tension nicely. Everyone in the cast is sensational, from Lauren Kennedy as an especially giddy Nellie, to Philip Quast as Emile, to Sheila Francisco as Bloody Mary, and to Edward Baker-Duly as Lt. Cable. I think this is also the first album to include the French reprise of “Bali Ha’i” and the only one to really convey what’s at stake in the story with the addition of “Communication Disconnected.” After two London disappointments, this is the one to beat.

Sheila Francisco played Bloody Mary in the 2002 Royal National Theatre production.

Next up is the very fun 2005 Carnegie Hall concert cast album. It’s the longest of the albums, clocking in at an hour and 17 minutes, which is forgivable thanks to the stellar cast. Reba McEntire sings the role of Nellie and her genuine southern accent adds much to the character. The part of Emile is performed by the always enchanting Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Lillias White and Jason Danieley rounding out the principle cast. Mitchell’s “This Nearly was Mine” and McEntire’s “Honey Bun” are especially triumphant. If I have a complaint here it is, unsurprisingly, the length, but I’ll trek through it again and again to enjoy these performances. This one is a real stand out.

The most recent of South Pacific‘s cast albums hails from the 2008 Broadway revival starring Kelli O’Hara as Nellie and Paulo Szot as Emile. Each delivers one of the best interpretations of their respective characters. O’Hara is actually a fairly good successor to Mary Martin, who owns the role in my eyes. Matthew Morrison is also incredible as Lt. Cable and Loretta Ables Sayre delivers the most unique Bloody Mary of the bunch. She’s quite refreshing in the role. The chorus numbers are a bit weak for my liking and the keys are a bit higher than they’ve been before. Overall, this album works, but only thanks to its gifted cast.

The 2008 Broadway poster.

I really thought that I was going to base my overall opinion on a few favorite songs and then pick a favorite between either the original Broadway cast, the film soundtrack, or the Carnegie Hall concert. It turns out that none of that is the case. There are a few gems here and a few duds as well, but I have to declare the 2002 Royal National Theatre cast album as the victor. It perfectly captures the complexities of the story and its orchestrations are just untouchable. You would be doing yourself a favor by listening to it some enchanted evening in the not-to-distant future.

Musical: South Pacific

Music: Richard Rodgers 

Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Opening Night On Broadway: April 7,1949, at the Majestic Theatre

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1949 original Broadway cast, 1951 original London cast, 1958 film soundtrack, 1967 Lincoln Center cast, 1988 London cast, 2002 Royal National Theatre cast, 2005 concert cast, and 2008 Broadway cast albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 2002 Royal National Theatre Cast Recording

Highlights: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and “Younger Than Springtime.”

Overall Impression: I’ve always said this is a perfect score and I maintain that opinion. It’s interesting to see the albums evolve to reveal more and more of the musical’s theme of racial tension.

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