While preparing to review this book, I had occasion to watch a video from the 2008 Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. It is a wonderful realization of the work with striking music-making, an imaginative set design that flows effortlessly from scene to scene, and a number of excellent characterizations from an overall fine cast. This was a timely reminder of the show's exceptionally high quality. The glorious, lyrical score includes songs that one wants to hear again and that participate fully in telling the story and delineating character. The book is imaginative and taut with memorable scenes, satisfying structure, and nary an extraneous moment. The creators also made in this work perhaps the strongest moral statement of their collaboration, confronting the American people with the issue of racial prejudice in our society. It was a searing work for 1949 that helped confirm the serious turn the genre was taking at the time.
As Jim Lovensheimer shows in his South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten, however, some commentators have questioned aspects of Rodgers and Hammerstein's accomplishment [End Page 103] because they find elements in the plot wanting in terms of modern notions of race, sexual politics, and America's global role following World War II. They cite, for example, the lyrics to "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" (hardly politically correct today, but sung by sex-starved military personnel in the 1940s) and Liat's near silence throughout the show, especially when Lieutenant Cable serenades her with "Younger than Springtime." Others, though, would argue that Rodgers and Hammerstein were progressive for their time, or at least as forward-looking as they dared be in Broadway's commercial cauldron.
Lovensheimer spends his book treading between these extremes. He grants the show's quality, stating in his final sentence: "South Pacific . . . remains, at least in musical-theater terms, paradise" (189). He consistently praises the score and script, showing through careful analysis of drafts how the creators improved the work, in the process providing a feast for those who crave details on how the show changed during its creation. He approaches the musical through different lenses, weaving in the voices of those critical of aspects of South Pacific, answering some with solid evidence drawn from his research. Andrea Most, for example, has argued in her Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (178)—ignoring the obvious musical characterization—that the lead couple of Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush seem to occupy different shows because the Frenchman sings exotic, somewhat operatic songs like "Some Enchanted Evening" and the nurse from Arkansas sings American popular tunes like "Cockeyed Optimist." Lovensheimer counters this notion by demonstrating through convincing prose and several musical examples that the music for Forbush and de Becque shares a descending tetrachord (124ff). Ultimately, he shows that a number of songs in South Pacific are musically united, only one of several strikingly original ideas in his book.
Although Lovensheimer gives considerable space to the show's critics, including some who fail to consider South Pacific as a product of its time, he himself states his intention to allow the show to exist in its own period. While seeking insight into how "the depiction of race, gender, and colonialism in South Pacific" (11) inform one about American culture during the period, he also cautions: "Care is taken, however, not to approach these issues as if early twenty-first century perceptions of them were common currency in 1949" (11). Yet Lovensheimer sometimes casts a decidedly modern light on the show, often through ideas from other scholars. He cites, for example, Christina Klein's Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, which places South Pacific in the context of other "middlebrow" American art after World War II that demonstrates our country's need to look more closely to Asia in terms of international relations. Klein interprets the show's famous final scene not as the positive example of the American Nellie overcoming her prejudice...