From our perch today, it’s hard to believe that a Broadway musical like “South Pacific” could have been a bold statement on behalf of racial tolerance a half century ago.
I’m encouraged, of course, to see a Quaker connection.
First, even though the novelist James A. Michener, whose book was the basis of the show, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was raised by a Quaker adoptive mother and attended Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College. In other words, he had been exposed to both pacifist and racial equality values.
Second, as Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdom notes in “The Road to Bali-hai,” is that librettist Oscar Hammerstein’s wife’s niece Jennifer attended the George School, another Quaker institution, one where Michener also taught briefly. The Hammersteins’ own son Jimmy also went there, as did a young family friend named and future Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. (And to think how vigorously earlier Quakers denounced theater as vain entertainment!)
Purdom’s article contains another telling point. The hit song “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” was originally a flop. In the preview performances before the Broadway opening, director and co-author Josh Logan was perplexed to see it wasn’t connecting until he realized that star Mary Martin had the women in the audience so abuzz about whether she was actually washing her hair onstage that nobody ever heard the lyrics themselves. He fixed that by having her belt out the first stanza before working her hair.
I wonder about how many other small changes in any art form spell the difference between boffo hit and mundane shelving.
A similar tweak in “Wonderful Guy” changed the song to a soliloquy with the word “you” substituted for “they.” As Logan recalled, “That night they tore the house apart.”
As I was saying about small changes or a simple touch? Never underestimate the importance of revisions in art. Or maybe life itself.
Michener, by the way, wrote of his experience on the Electoral College elections with the telling title on his political science volume, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble on Our Electoral System.
He was so prescient there.