When students of the American musical discuss why it took nearly 60 years to revive South Pacific on Broadway they frequently often cite the difficulty of finding the right person to play Emile de Becque. Laurence Maslon, the author of a beautiful, highly enjoyable new book called The South Pacific Companion, is fully aware of the casting issues but in an interview the other day immediately zeroed in on something else: timing.
"One of the problems with bringing back South Pacific in a major way," Maslon remarked, "has been the question: what's the right cultural climate in which to revive the show? Sadly, we're in a war now, which provides an apt backdrop for the Lincoln Center Theater revival, even though the circumstances of Iraq are very different from those of World War II."
To the theatergoers of 1949, when South Pacific debuted on Broadway, many of the documentary photographs in Maslon's book--Times Square on V-E Day; Marines going ashore on the Solomon Islands--would have been highly familiar, as would the life-and-death stakes in the show's story.
"In those initial audiences," Maslon said, "everybody would have known someone who had fought in the war. Of those people, probably one-half would have known somebody who had fought in the South Pacific and probably one-third would have known someone who died in the South Pacific. Those audiences' feelings were still fresh. That's very different from now, when probably very few theatergoers know somebody who's died in Iraq."
Such historical compare-and-contrast has played a large role in the work of Maslon, who is an associate arts professor at NYU and the author, with Michael Kantor, of Broadway: The American Musical. "The first show I saw, at the age of 9," Maslon said, "was 1776. Whether I was aware of it at the time or not, I was forever impressed with how someone could take something real--in this case, the Declaration of Independence-- and turn it into something musical."
If some aspects of the historical context of South Pacific were perhaps the main revelations for Maslon in the writing of his volume, the process by which Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan wrote the musical's book was also eye-opening. Maslon said: "People tend to think, Oh, those men took two stories from James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and turned them into a musical. But when you dig deeper you discover that they used something from every one of Michener's stories. The level at which Hammerstein combed through Michener's book is amazing. It's one of the most thorough jobs of adaptation for a musical that I've ever encountered."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com