2019 marks the 70th anniversary of South Pacific, winner of ten Tony awards in 1949. It’s still the only musical production to win Tony Awards in all four acting categories. The original cast album was the bestselling record of the 1940s (which is pretty amazing when you think that it came out at the end of the decade!).
But what made South Pacific such a hit, one whose songs stand the test of time and whose message of love and understanding still endures?
It all began with author James Michener joining the US Navy during World War II. In 1944, Michener traveled around the Pacific on assignment to write a history of the Navy in the region. Alongside the history, he began to write fiction based on soldiers’ tales and natives he encountered. Tales of the South Pacific is made up of 19 separate stories set on an island where the American military is planning to launch an attack on the Japanese.
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein got the rights to Tales of the South Pacific, they had already collaborated to create Oklahoma! and Carousel, both enormous successes. Their third musical, Allegro, was a disappointing failure, so they were seeking another hit.
Rodgers and Hammerstein focused primarily on two of the stories, one about Lieutenant Cable and a native woman named Liat, and the other about the nurse Nellie Forbush and local plantation owner Emile De Becque. Usually when a musical included two romances, one was serious and the other was comedic. In this situation, both romances were serious and both dealt with the weighty issue of racism. In order to balance the tone of the musical, the character of sailor Luther Billis, who appeared in several of the Tales of the South Pacific stories, was used for comic relief, and he also acted as a connection between the other characters.
Many of the songs Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for South Pacific became iconic, like the gorgeously romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and the funny “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” which show the balance that was struck between heartfelt romance and comedy. In June, the Cape Symphony will be joined by talented singers from Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s Musical Theatre program to perform these two numbers along with many other celebrated Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that you know and love.