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Kent April 15, 2021

But nobody ever sang the novel

Sovereign State

Chekhov – Da;  Rodgers and Hammerstein – Nyet. In Drama School the latter were never mentioned; the former we studied endlessly, mulling over Masha’s opening line in “The Three Sisters” – “I’m in mourning for my life.”  Broadway was for sell-outs.  It’s taken me a lot of years, decades, in fact, to recognize the genius of America’s musical theater.  Sondheim?  Who he?  Which brings me to…

I try not to muddy my mind with too much research, Google Schmoogle, being of the Casey Stengel school who long ago famously said, “You can look it up.”  But I believe it was Oscar Hammerstein who went to Lorenz Hart and said, “Why don’t we do a musical set in Oklahoma?” and Hart said,  “Who’s going to be interested in a piece about cows?”  We’re SophistiCATS. We’re Manhattan Madhatters, dude. Well, Oscar went to Richard Rodgers and never went back to Lorenz. 

And that piece about the cows and the wind whipping down the plain was born.  And then there was “South Pacific,” on my mind a lot these days because of its all-out attack on racism. Nellie Forbush, from Little Rock, originally played by Mary Martin, is initially put off that Emile de Becque, the French colonial planter, played by the opera star Ezio Pinza, has two mixed race illegitimate children. (In the original James Michener story, Emile has eight. And to Nellie, anyone not white or yellow was the N-word. As Nellie struggles for the politic word in the musical, Emile suggests “Polynesian.” Nellie responds with “Colored.”  Nellie may be lily-white, but in the Michener, she has a past. A 4-F boyfriend back home and an affair on the islands.)

 An aside: Joshua Logan was “South Pacific” director and co-writer, Logan who said “You can make a killing in the theater, but you can’t make a living.”  Truer words…

Another aside: James Michener, from whose stories come “South Pacific,” was given 1% of the royalties. That seems stingy to me — they were his stories that the writers adapted, he the one who “discovered” Bloody Mary, a woman with few remaining betel-stained teeth who lived to be 102, (and her best line?  “French planters stingy bastards”), but that lousy 1 % made him a rich man. He quit his editing job at MacMillan and wrote full time, “Hawaii” and the like.

 When I used the word “stingy” to a friend, a longtime theater manager, he said that that was the norm and besides “no one ever sang the novel.” Until Richard and Oscar and Josh came along.

When the show was done in the South, “You Have To Be Carefully Taught” came in for criticism for being too on-the-nose confrontational about racism. Two Southern legislators threatened to pass a law banning shows, which were inspired by Moscow. “Hammerstein, when asked for comment, responded that he did not think the legislators were representing their constituents very well, and that he was surprised at the suggestion that anything kind and decent must necessarily originate in Moscow.”  (Wikipedia, begging your pardon.)

The lawmakers continued: “Intermarriage produces half-breeds. And half-breeds are not conducive to the higher type of society. ... In the South, we have pure blood lines and we intend to keep it that way.” (Wiki ibid)

Like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. (My colleague Charles Smith is writing a two-hander entitled “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” about Hemings and Israel Jefferson.  Sounds pretty cool, hey?)

 In the wonderful final scene of the film, when Emile returns from the mission in the jungle where Caleb has died, Caleb who has sung “You Have To Be Carefully Taught” to be a racist, Emile sees Nellie and how loving she is with his children. Nellie then gently pushes the tureen of soup to the bedraggled Emile.  It’s a lovely loving wordless moment.  We know that Emile has come a long way home and Nellie has come a long way as well.

Rodgers and Hammerstein – Da, indeed.  As for the Nyet part and Masha, in mourning for her life, we’ll keep mulling.


Lonnie Carter is a writer who lives in Falls Village. Email him at lonniety@comcast.net. or go to his website at www.lonniecarter.com.  

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