Zinsser on Friday

Tales of ‘South Pacific’

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By William Zinsser


 

Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist and librettist of such high-minded musicals as Show Boat, South Pacific and The King and I, didn’t start his career on such an exalted plane. In 1925, at work on the musical Sunny, he learned that the producer had hired Cliff Edwards, better known as Ukulele Ike, to do his vocal and ukulele act, and Ike’s contract specified that the act be performed between 10 and 10:15 p.m. Fitting the ukulele man into that slot without derailing the story, Hammerstein once wrote, was one of his toughest early challenges as a librettist.

He also recalled presenting Sunny to its principal star, Marilyn Miller, before it went into rehearsal. “She returned from Europe,” he said, “and met us in the producer’s office to listen to the story and the score that Jerome Kern had written. We went through the whole plot and sang whatever numbers we had written up to that point. She seemed to be listening very attentively. When we were all finished there was a pause, and then Marilyn said, ‘When do I do my tap specialty?’”

Ukulele Ike is my favorite symbol of the era when the point of a musical was the star, not the story, and I thought of him last week when the ultimate opposite of those shows opened at a theater in Brooklyn. In the Footprint dramatizes the long community fight over a plan to develop a 22-acre tract, called Atlantic Yards, into a complex of tall buildings that would tower over Brooklyn’s nearby residential neighborhoods.

Its songs and monologues are drawn from hundreds of interviews with residents, businessmen, politicians, legislators, lawyers, state and city officials, activists, and bloggers who have been involved for much of the past decade in a textbook case of urban land use. Public agencies mentioned in the show’s songs include the New York State Urban Development Corporation, and one song explains the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, concluding with the phrase “And that’s how eminent domain works.” Definitely not a ukulele act.

It now occurs to me that Ukulele Ike hovered over Oscar Hammerstein well into his collaboration with the composer Richard Rodgers. In 1949 their musical South Pacific had to be restructured to fit the contractual demands of one of its stars.

I still remember the near-hysteria that greeted the news that Rodgers & Hammerstein had signed Ezio Pinza to play the French planter Emile de Becque opposite Mary Martin as the corn-fed Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. Ezio Pinza! On Broadway! The 57-year-old basso had recently retired from a dazzling 22-year career with the Metropolitan Opera. I once saw him as Boris in Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and I can’t imagine that the Russian monarch was any more magisterial or had a voice so deep and dominant. Now Pinza would be singing on a mere Broadway stage with a mere musical comedy star. It was a match made in press-agent heaven.

But not to Pinza. His contract stipulated that he would not sing more than an aggregate of 15 minutes with Mary Martin. For Hammerstein that clause posed a serious problem in social engineering. In his stage adaptation of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, with its fully developed portraits of Emile and Nellie and the racial barrier confronting them, Hammerstein had given the two lovebirds plenty of time together. Now the task was to keep them apart.

So it happened that Pinza and Martin spent much of the show singing about each other, not to each other. She sang “I’m in love with a wonderful guy” to the other Navy nurses. He, alone, sang of “some enchanted evening” when you will meet a stranger across a crowded room. She sang “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” while actually washing her hair. He sang “this nearly was mine” after he had lost her. Even the “twin soliloquies” are twinned only in the fact that Pinza and Martin are on the same stage, but not in the same space, using, as always, third-person pronouns she and he, not you and I.

The resulting show, though hailed as a “modern” musical play, in fact looked suspiciously like an old-fashioned musical comedy–a succession of songs tailored to its stars. The Seabees and their chief Luther Billis were comic props, the Tonkinese grass-skirts vendor Bloody Mary was a bawdy hag. The war in the South Pacific was mere backdrop, its military equations unexplained; De Becque was off doing something about the Japanese fleet.

In 2008, exactly 50 years later, South Pacific was revived in a new production at Lincoln Center, and I could hardly believe what a different experience it was. Because the show didn’t have any stars, it wasn’t a showcase of big-star numbers. The plot was a coherent narrative, gliding on a sea of beautiful Rodgers melodies, including several small connective gems. The war was a real war; Emile de Becque’s heroic mission made dramatic sense. The Seabees acted like Seabees at a Navy base, their movements choreographed with athleticism and grace. Bloody Mary, rescued from caricature, was an indigenous woman looking out for her daughter. As for Emile and Nellie, they were a man and a woman in love, working things out. I thought it was a terrific musical, just about perfect. Audiences obviously agreed; the show ran for three years and is now on a cross-country tour.

Which version was better? Probably each one was right for its time. Postwar America was a naïve and optimistic country, ready to be entertained. Today’s America is a more sober place, vulnerable and wary, looking for truth that it can recognize. In the musical theater many of those truths had long been provided by the deeper and darker shows of Stephen Sondheim.

Which South Pacific was truer to the one that Hammerstein first set out to write? I’d vote for the revival. Certainly it’s truer to the intentions of James Michener’s book and its characters–before those characters got hijacked by the ghost of Ukulele Ike.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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