Racism, Love, and War in a Musical

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South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was drawn from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Tales of the South Pacific. The book is a short story collection of Michener’s experiences as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy and tales told to him by his comrades. The musical combines two of these tales, “Fo’ Dolla” and “Our Heroine,” to birth the story of South Pacific.

Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the musical revolves around the lives of four individuals stuck in a time of turmoil and prejudice. A naive young navy nurse from Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, falls in love with a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque. At the same time, Lieutenant Joe Cable goes on a dangerous spy mission on the island to uncover something vital to the outcome of the war. There he meets a grass skirt seller dubbed Bloody Mary, who later introduces him to her daughter, Liat. In the progression of the story, Cable and Liat eventually fall in love.

While all four characters are bound by love, prejudice and racism relentlessly tug them away from one another. Nellie discovers that Emile has children with a dark-skinned Polynesian woman. At that time, they were set to get married, but Nellie’s racial prejudice makes her hesitant to follow through. Cable faces the same dilemma. While his relationship with Liat is getting more serious, his fear of his family and friends’ judgment stops him from fully committing to the Vietnamese girl.  Along with the burden of their beliefs, Nellie and Cable are constantly troubled by their responsibilities of helping end the war in their favor.

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More than the romantic plotline, the musical bravely addresses the issue of prejudice and racism. It paints a vivid image of the way the white society saw people of color as the lesser race. Although South Pacific is not uniquely headstrong in that aspect, the musical, nevertheless, delivers a very important message. Prejudice and racism will only divide people, when people should be united.

The songs, plotline, characters, romance, and social issue addressed in the musical makes South Pacific an endlessly stirring and entertaining show to watch. The original Broadway production was immensely successful, winning ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Libretto. It was also very well-received by enthusiasts. Despite, or possibly due to, the controversial theme, the musical has become an iconic work of art in theater.

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by Rosalie H. Contino, PhD