American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SOUTH PACIFIC (1949). The musical South Pacific began life as Tales of the South Pacific (1947), a collection of interwoven short stories by James Michener* based on his experiences in World War II. The volume opens with a detailed description of vast ocean and gracefully nodding coconut palms, and its concern throughout is with both the beauty and the peril of the sea. The collection won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

Broadway producer and director Joshua Logan brought the stories to the attention of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who fashioned the material into the musical South Pacific. The team combined three of Michener’s tales: “Our Heroine,” which details the romance between Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, and French planter Emile de Becque; “Fo’ Dolla,” which introduces the character Bloody Mary and tells of the tragic love affair between her daughter Liat and Lieutenant Joe Cable; and “A Boar’s Tooth,” which features the comic exploits of Seabee Luther Billis. The stories are connected by both plot and theme. Nellie and Luther are friends who star in the Thanksgiving show, and Cable and de Becque go on a dangerous mission together to escape their romantic troubles. Both romances are hampered by prejudice. Nellie initially turns away from Emile when she discovers he has had children by a Polynesian woman; Joe realizes he can never marry Liat.

The original production starred Mary Martin as Nellie, Ezio Pinza as Emile, and Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary. The score features such Rodgers and Hammerstein classics as “There Is Nothing like a Dame,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right outta My Hair,” “Bali Hai,” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a powerful protest against racial prejudice. Under Logan’s direction, the staging was noted for using cinematic dissolves between scenes. The musical won the Pulitzer Prize and eight Tony awards. Also under Logan’s direction, it was adapted into a film starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (1958). Although the stage production was able to summon up the sea only through the dazzling costume and set designs by Motley and Jo Mielziner, the movie’s sumptuous cinematography takes full advantage of the South Pacific setting, reinforcing the beauty and danger of the tropical locale, especially the lure of the exotic and elusive island of Bali Hai. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

Brian T. Carney