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October 28, 2010 By:
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 My father was not an effusive man. A product of his time, he kept a tight reign on what now would be called his feminine side. Just once, though, I remember watching his composure slip. The year was 1960, and news came over the radio that the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein, who'd written such Broadway masterpieces as Oklahoma! and The King and I with his composer partner Richard Rodgers, had died of cancer at age 65. My father grew still, removed his reading glasses and said, almost to himself: "Well, there won't be anymore beautiful music."

I knew that my father, who was by no means a theater fan, had accompanied my mother to see some of these shows in their original productions. But wasn't it she who had the cast albums playing on the stereo, day in and day out?

I had never witnessed my father -- a physician, a man of science -- so affected by the passing of an artist. I asked him why he felt the way he did. "You have to understand," he answered without hesitation, "with South Pacific" -- another Rodgers and Hammerstein megahit -- "I saw part of my life onstage."

My father had been stationed on a submarine in the Pacific theater during World War II, so I understood the connection. But I had never before heard him express such deeply felt sentiments.

I recalled that moment while reading South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten by Jim Lovensheimer, one of the first full-length studies of the work. The volume is an entry in the estimable Oxford University Press series, Broadway Legacies.

Other than watching the overblown Technicolor movie version of South Pacific as a child and listening often to the original cast album of the Broadway show, I had never seen a full staging of the piece until my wife and I attended the Lincoln Center revival a year or so ago.

This version, directed by Bartlett Sher, has played a central role in Lovensheimer's re-examination of a true classic that many people are familiar with, much like myself, through other means than witnessing it live. In his first chapter, the author, taking his cue from a piece written by New York Times' writer Frank Rich, argues that the revival's sudden popularity -- it became an immediate hot ticket after opening night in 2008 -- came about because it illuminated certain social ills that were getting an airing at that exact moment in the United States. These included the conversation on race and racism that the country had been conducting during President Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and the protests that had been raging back then over what was an unpopular war in the Middle East.

Writes Lovensheimer: "Audiences ... seem to have forgotten so much about this musical that its almost startling confrontation with homegrown racism catches them off guard. Recalling only images of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza on an old original cast recording, or the overly produced Hollywood version of the musical made almost 10 years after the Broadway production, audiences who expect only to be lulled by 'Some Enchanted Evening' are jolted out of their reveries by 'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,' perhaps the most confrontational moment in any of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work. In an era in which many Americans like to think of themselves as 'post-racial,' to borrow a term used without irony in the 2008 presidential primaries, the tragic consequence of Joe Cable's learned racism still draws gasps."

There is no doubt that Lovensheimer's points are well-taken, but what struck me when viewing the revival was how specific it was to its time -- not in any old-fashioned way, but rather like the effect an evocative museum piece might have. This was World War II up there, not Iraq. And the specificity didn't lessen the musical's power and emotional charge one iota. I had hoped to see what had so affected my father -- and I did.

Lovensheimer is on a much different trajectory. He wants to look at South Pacific in detail in order to discover what it tells us about specific social issues still plaguing American society -- war and racism, as mentioned above -- while also investigating several current concerns in academia, such as what this work from another period tells us about gender politics, and about colonialism during the American incursion in the South Pacific during the 1940s and beyond.

The author's reach is considerable and commendable, but I think he's on firmer ground in the former arena than in the latter two -- and he's at his best when comparing the musical to its source, James A. Michener's first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales From the South Pacific.

Michener's book was a series of short stories with assorted characters -- Navy men and nurses stationed on an island in the Pacific -- that Hammerstein and his co-librettist, Joshua Logan, who also happened to be the original director, had to pick through in order to identify a usable plot. The topic of prejudice was in Michener's original; the problem was how to make it palatable, and keep a musical comedy-loving audience content and engaged for a good three hours. (The masterly score, filled with exquisite numbers, certainly helped move things along.)

Hammerstein and Logan suffered through several false starts, with certain major characters from the book being excised, until the librettists settled on two couples at center stage, struggling with their feelings of love while home-grown racism threatens to tear them apart.

Lovensheimer has a fascinating section on how Hammerstein -- long considered Broadway's political conscience -- insisted on this theme of racial intolerance; he was hardly new to the territory since he and Jerome Kern had investigated it in the 1927 classic Show Boat.

Story Was Paramount

Not that Rodgers was against dealing with the matter. He may have been perceived as less of an activist than his partner, but he made his political stance known in other ways and in other places.

"In 1947, for instance," writes Lovensheimer, "when the [House Un-American Activities Committee] intensified its ongoing investigation of the alleged Communist presence in Hollywood, Rodgers and other artists formally protested the proceedings. This resulted in the formation of an FBI file on his political activities, although, as Rodgers's biographer Meryle Secrest later found, about the only thing that was ever in the files was the information that 'the Roosevelt reelection committee [which Rodgers supported] might or might not have become a Communist front organization and that he [Rodgers] had risen in defense of free speech and civil liberties.' "

But in the end, the collaborators, no matter their politics, insisted that the story was paramount, and it alone would dictate the contents of their collaboration.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is that, after nearly 200 pages of praise for the musical, Lovensheimer includes some damning criticism from an unlikely but potent source. In his last chapter, he returns to Frank Rich, who, it happens, conducted an evening-long interview with Stephen Sondheim, America's leading Broadway composer and a protégé of Hammerstein. During this discussion, which took place at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, Sondheim offered some "frank opinions" about works by other composers and lyricists.

For instance, he called My Fair Lady "the most unnecessary musical ever written." And though he said he liked the main couple in South Pacific, he didn't like the lyrics of certain songs, among them "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," which offered a portrait of a "happy" war he didn't buy. He summed up his thoughts by saying that he wasn't the kind to write "Happy Talk," taking another swipe at one of South Pacific's iconic tunes.

Only an author certain of his thesis and his conclusions -- and Lovensheimer is that -- would have included such "unhappy talk," even so late in the literary proceedings.

 

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