Posted by: PIA HAAS on Thursday, September 25, 2014 at 8:00:00 am

James Michener, a lieutenant, was stationed at Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific during World War two. When he returned, he published Tales of the South Pacific, based on his wartime experiences and observations. The novel won Michener the 1948 Pulitzer Prize.

 Tales of the South Pacific was made up of eighteen stories. Director, Joshua Logan decided to try to buy the rights to adapt one of the stories, for the stage. That story of the doomed romance between an American officer and a young Tonkinese woman, eventually inspired the story of Lieutenant Joe Cable and Liat in South Pacific. But first, Logan needed to find someone to write a play based on the story—his interest was only in directing it. Logan mentioned his idea to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When they read Tales of the South Pacific, they decided to buy the rights to all eighteen stories. They believed that they could write a musical based on Michener's work that would be financially successful and, at the same time, would send a strong progressive message on racism.

When Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborated, Hammerstein almost always wrote the words first, and then Rodgers set them to music. Hammerstein found himself stuck when he started to write the book for Tales from the South Pacific. He just couldn’t write the military characters. He had never been to war, and he didn’t know how the characters would talk or behave. Joshua Logan had served in the US Army during the war, so Hammerstein asked him to help make sure he got the military details right. Logan and Hammerstein ended up writing the entire script as a joint effort. 

It is said that Hammerstein shared the words to “Bali Ha’i” over a working lunch, and Richard Rodgers immediately sketched out the tune right there at the table. Other songs were not so easy, “Younger Than Springtime,” the love song that Lieutenant Cable sings to Liat, was only written after Joshua Logan had insisted that the first two attempts at songs for that spot were not good enough.

South Pacific opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949. The production featured Mary Martin as Ensign Nellie Forbush, opera star Enzio Pinza, as Emile de Becque and Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary. The reviews were raves, the show was a smash hit and it ran for 1,925 performances, finally closing in 1954. It won 9 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. The 2008 Broadway revival was a critical success, ran for 996 performances and won seven Tonys, including Best Musical Revival.

It was adapted into a 1958 movie.  Mary Martin did not play Nellie Forbush in the movie because Enzio Pinza had already died and the producers considered it to be a hopeless task to find anybody who could match her in the movie. Mitzi Gaynor was eventually cast in the role. Rosano Brazzi was cast as Emile, a role that was first offered to such established stars as Charles Boyer, Vittorio DeSica and Fernando Lamas. This would be the first Rodgers and Hammerstein film of a stage show to contain every song from the stage. Rodgers and Hammerstein were pressured to delete the song You've Got to be Carefully Taught, but the team would not budge. The song was a bold composition about prejudice but Rodgers and Hammerstein had no problem bringing social issues into their musicals. The film was considered a big success and became a top money-maker of 1958.


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