Show Of Tolerance

With 'South Pacific' and other musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote more than pretty tunes and clever lyrics. They tackled charged topics like race relations.

February 11, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When it comes to Rodgers and Hammerstein, audiences may be more apt to think of "raindrops on roses" than race relations.

But the theme of race resonates through many of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best-loved shows -- The King and I, Flower Drum Song and, most prominently, South Pacific.

Winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, South Pacific is experiencing a resurgence of interest. In addition to the 2001 TV movie starring Glenn Close, there's a new British revival directed by Trevor Nunn as well as an American touring production, which opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow.

Although musicals have traditionally been considered light entertainment, the use of serious racial themes makes sense. After all, the Broadway musical is one of this country's chief contributions to the arts, and what better theme than race, which is often described as the defining issue in American culture?

Race is, in fact, the central theme of the show regarded as the first modern Broadway musical, Show Boat (1927), a landmark work not only because it was the first musical to smoothly blend story and song, but also because it was the first to tackle serious subject matter.

It's hardly coincidental that the libretto of Show Boat is by Oscar Hammerstein II (the score is by Jerome Kern). A lifelong liberal, Hammerstein continued to favor racial themes when he teamed up with composer Richard Rodgers in the early 1940s.

Not that their shows were intended to serve as political propaganda. "They were theater guys. They were not politically motivated people," says Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which holds the rights to their work.

But at the same time, Chapin explains, "I think [the theme of race] is something that they were very cognizant of. They lived through a very charged time. All the stories make some reference, some of them make very specific and bold reference, South Pacific very prime among them."

Part of the theme's appeal was that Rodgers and Hammerstein knew a good story when they saw one. "They saw an inherent drama in people being torn by racial issues and people who were different, period," says Geoffrey Block, editor of The Richard Rodgers Reader, scheduled to be published next month, and author of Yale Broadway Masters: Richard Rodgers, due out next year.

Their attitude toward race had a decidedly sentimental streak. "[It's] this idea of love is blind when it comes to culture, race, all kinds of things," Block says. "That's their real thrust -- that love can conquer prejudice."

This may not be deep thinking, but it's far more substantive than the spun sugar often associated with Rodgers and Hammerstein.

They approached racial themes from different angles in each show. In The King and I (1951), a British governess and a chauvinist Siamese king learn mutual respect. In Flower Drum Song (1958) -- a story about assimilation vs. preserving cultural heritage -- they broke ground by hiring a primarily Asian cast on Broadway. Even The Sound of Music (1959) is ultimately about Nazi persecution.

Message of `South Pacific'

Nowhere was Rodgers and Hammerstein's stance against racism more pronounced than in South Pacific, a show in which two couples grapple with prejudice during wartime.

Over the years, reaction to one of the show's songs, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," has been indicative of the strength of the show's anti-racism message.

James A. Michener, author of Tales of the South Pacific, the book on which the musical is based, included a telling anecdote in his memoir, The World is My Home. The morning after South Pacific's New Haven, Conn., tryout, Michener wrote that "some agitated New Englanders" warned him: "Your play will fail if you keep in that song about racial prejudice. It's ugly, it's untimely, and it's not what patrons want to hear when they go to a musical."

When he shared this suggestion with Hammerstein, the librettist laughed and replied: "That's what the play is about!"

For years the song served as a kind of anthem for civil rights activists, as Christina Klein, an associate professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in her forthcoming book, Cold War Orientalism. As an example, Klein cites a Boston headmaster who kept the lyrics under glass on his desktop for inspiration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when black students were bused into his predominantly white school.

The musical as a whole has proved equally controversial. After the initial touring production played Atlanta in 1953, some Georgia legislators introduced legislation aimed at banning entertainment with "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."

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