South Pacific isn't just happily-ever-after fluff. One of the major characters dies near the end, and much of the plot zeroes in on race prejudice -- heavy matters for a half-century ago, and still not exactly escapist fare.
So why does one member of the national touring company, coming to the Opera House next weekend for six performances (Nov. 7-10), claim that "90 percent of our audiences have seen this show before"?
You might say, it's the melodies, stupid Mr. Hoity-Toity Critic.
Holly Davis, who plays Nurse Nellie Forbush in this particular musical voyage to Polynesia, spoke by phone from a Best Western motel in Burlington, Iowa, where the national company is putting on the show before stops in Lawrence, Kan.; Hays, Kan.; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Spokane.
Davis knows all about the show's attraction for audiences: "We can hear them humming along with the songs, even singing them out loud during the show." Davis, who was in the national touring company of The Sound of Music, understudying Maria, ventures an explanation for why Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's songs are so memorable: "It's because their melodies and lyrics are quite simple. The underscoring is pretty complex, but the melodies are very simple, and there's something American about them. I mean, as far as the classic American musical goes, they're it; they are the big turning point. Take "A Wonderful Guy," for example":
I'm as corny as Kansas in August,
I'm as normal as blueberry pie.
No more a smart little girl with no heart,
I have found me a wonderful guy.
The entire show, says Davis, "has such a wartime feel. It's kind of Spartan, and a little march-like."
That marching you hear is the sound of troops on the move. The musical's plot, based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, is set on a Polynesian island during World War II and traces how race prejudice disrupts two love affairs. Nellie, who's stationed on the island, meets and falls in love with a wealthy plantation owner, a French expatriate named Emile de Becque -- who turns out to have two children from a previous marriage to a native islander. Meanwhile, another all-American type, Lt. Joe Cable, is lured by a local trader nicknamed Bloody Mary to the magical island of Bali Ha'i, where Mary introduces Cable to her daughter, Liat. Romance ensues, and adventure follows when the Marines try to induce de Becque to guide Cable on a mission scouting out a nearby island occupied by the Japanese.
Despite the somberness, Davis notes, Nellie sings early in the show "about how she 'can't get hope out of her heart.' She's the kind of girl who expects everything will turn out all right in the end. Nellie is a 'heart' person -- throughout the show, she does things based on her emotions":
I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we're done and we might as well be dead --
So they called me a cockeyed optimist,
And I can't get it into my head.
As nurse Nellie, Davis has four big numbers: " 'A Cockeyed Optimist' is the most complex and demanding, because it's the first song in the show, and I've gotta really get that story out there and tell it honestly. You know, Rodgers and Hammerstein were famous for starting their musicals quietly, whereas traditionally [musicals] used to start with big production numbers. But this is only one person, and I'm basically setting up the audience. What I need to convey about her is that, despite the war and the things she has seen in the hospital, that she is still optimistic. And of course that comes out later, in 'A Wonderful Guy.' "
In fact, in the space of just 10 minutes of stage time, her character travels emotionally from wanting to break it off with Emile ("I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair / And send him on his way") to being seduced by Emile's lovey-dovey approach ("Some Enchanted Evening") to confessing that she's head over heels in love with "A Wonderful Guy" (that's right, it's Emile).
Yet even if she's mercurial, one of Nellie's attitudes is particularly resistant to change. She can't get past her revulsion over the fact that Emile was married previously to a Polynesian woman.
Davis speculates about the origins of Nellie's prejudice: "She's from Little Rock, Arkansas, and this is World War II. I figure she's about 22. She would have gone to a segregated high school, with separate water fountains for whites and blacks. Her church would have been segregated. So it probably wasn't anything she consciously thought about. It was just present from the time when she was very little."
Late in the play, Lt. Cable helps Nellie realize that her prejudices were acquired, not innate:
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade . . .
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Cable's attack on racism -- the message widely supposed to have earned Rodgers and Hammerstein the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 -- is part of what keeps South Pacific from being a mere package for pretty melodies. It offers a lesson worth being taught. But for the sailors and the Seabees stationed in this South Pacific, there is nothin' like a dame -- and, like them, the rest of us would like nothing better than to sail away for a little R & amp;R on the magical island of Bali Ha'i, "where the sky meets the sea." Come away, come away.