The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, has been a great artistic and emotional influence on my life.
1948 – The Original Cast
I was born in 1948, the same year as the publication of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. The following year Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turned it into the hit Pulitzer Prize winning musical – the story of love and war; the clash of cultures on the other side of the world.
My Uncle Joey on the Polish side of my family, saw the show and owned a set of 78’s starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. As a young boy whenever I went to grandma’s house, Uncle Joey would play the music for me. Yes Uncle Joey along with my Uncle Eddie were bachelors and lived with my grandma in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This was not an unusual arrangement due to the housing shortage after World Word II and the social mores of the time (pacé Harvey Fierstein re: A Catered Affair).
I didn’t know the story at all but I would sit in front of the Victrola and play the songs over and over again in thrall to Mary Martin (I guess it’s in the gay genes). My mother would sing “Some Enchanted Evening” as she washed the dishes or set the table. That song I think is my favorite of all of the many hits from the show for many reasons. The first is the lush sweep and beauty of the song and the second is that my Uncle Joey and my Mom would sing it to each other. Looking back I can see why it would resonate to them. My mom would have just met my dad and my Uncle Joey alas was alone and I suspect homosexual. Both were looking for that “stranger” who would take them away to “that special island” and make their life beautiful.
1958 – The Movie Version
The movie version came out in 1958 in Todd – AO -which according to Cole Porter meant “glorious Technicolor and stereophonic sound”. I almost saw the film for the first time in the Bronx with my Aunt Mary but she passed it up since she “didn’t like war movies” So I got to see it with my mother at the Broadway Theatre on a Wednesday afternoon in downtown Newburgh, New York.
Of course, one never paid attention to movie starting times so my mom and I entered the theatre about 30 minutes into the film, just in time for “Bali Hai.” We sat down in the darkened theatre. My mother started to mutter as she was wont to do and kept looking at the screen and then back up to the projection booth. “Something is wrong with the picture!” she blurted out. “The colors are off.” She poked me and whispered rather loudly that I should go out and tell the manager to fix it. I embarrassingly approached one of the theatre matrons and she brusquely said nothing was wrong and escorted me with her flashlight back to my seat
When I got back into the auditorium, indeed the film looked fine. My mother did not believe my answer until the next song started and the screen started to go through a kaleidoscope of lush color washes. Of course, now we all know about the notorious color gels Joshua Logan had used to enhance the mood when anyone sang which received great critical distain. So the laugh was on her or Josh when we walked in to see a yellow to purple to amber Juanita Hall singing on the beach. I loved it.
This is also when I fell in love simultaneously with Rossano Brazzi as Emile de Beque and John Kerr as Lt. Cable. Rozzano was the handsome older cultured gentleman, a stranger I would like to meet one day. I almost came in my pants when John Kerr wore his little white trunks during the song “Happy Talk.” I swear to this day you can see the outline of his dick when he jumps in the lagoon for the underwater sequence – “Happy Talk” indeed. And how can I not fantasize as a gay teenager over the SeaBees played by all the hunky men that Joshua Logan always cast in his shows. This was one closeted homosexual director if I ever knew one. I could only imagine the guys he had on stage in his musical “Wish You Were Here” which features a swimming pool on stage.
I think I saw the movie 8 times in 1958/59. I even dragged my hard-of-hearing Polish grandmother to the RKO Dyker Heights in Brooklyn to see it. Somehow she heard it all and we both walked out weeping.
Gathering my neighborhood pals together, in 1960 I put on the show in my best friend’s garage. We all lip-synced to the soundtrack and I played Bloody Mary but in my heart I was Emile. And in 1969 I saw a production at Guy Lombardo’s Jones Beach Theatre, with an elaborate Boar’s Head Ceremony and I think even a exlploding volcano!
Since then I have seen the movie at least 12 times on VHS, Laser Disc and DVD.
1968 – Lincoln Center Revival
I took my mother to see the show at Lincoln Center when Richard Rodger himself headed up a two year musical summer season of shows. I was going to college in Manhattan and Lincoln Center had just opened two years prior. It was a great production directed by Joe Layton and starred Florence Henderson and Giorgio Tozzi who had dubbed Mr. Brazzi’s voice in the movie.
As a teenager I was looking for that “stranger “in every crowded room I entered not to mention the restrooms of the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. I was always on the prowl in the city from street to subway to theatre to park. One night I wound up in the Rambles in Central Park.
My dorm was only tfour blocks away and on a hot summer’s night like a lemming I instinctively knew where to go. The scene was something like the movie “Night of the Living Dead”. Men roaming the woods like Zombies looking for love in the all wrong places. As I was nervously meandering, a group of Hispanic boys jumped me and threw me to the ground with a jack knife at my throat. I had no money of course. They took my Timex watch that I had just received for my High School graduation from my godfather Uncle Joey. They wanted to take my class ring but I somehow talked them out of it. They laughed in my face calling me a maricon as they disappeared into the evening.
They were not the strangers I had in mind. Well they were cute but let’s not go there. However in a weird way this incident t may have saved my life since never again would I go to the Rambles and ever put myself in that kind of jeopardy. This was very lucky since the dawn of the 1970’s gay liberation was about to burst. I avoided the specter of Aids that lurked in the darkness and the underbelly of the city in the 1970/80s..
2008 – Broadway Revival
Gary and I celebrated our 25th anniversary in February 2008 and we included “Some Enchanted Evening” in our musical review. I guess I was Emile and he was Lt. Cable confusing the two plot strands! In April we saw the revival of South Pacific currently playing at Lincoln Center.
The revival at Lincoln Center curiously left me cool. I was not involved with the show which is ironic since I can hardly watch the movie without tearing up. What was wrong?
Kelli O’Hara was great as Ens. Nellie Forbush but casting Emile de Becque younger diminished the tension and heightened sexuality of a younger American woman falling in love with an older Frenchman in 1942. There was no frission between them. Also casting Lt. Cable younger makes his singing of “Younger than Springtime” incredulous since how can he feel younger than springtime when he is a kid himself.
There was no sense that war had thrown these characters together and the hot house atmosphere of the South Seas was making them take chances in their lives and fall in love with abandon. I had more danger in my ramblings in Central Park looking for my strangers. And where was Josh when you needed him to cast the sailors with men and not with pasty white preppy chorus boys playing grownup. They culd have at least used body makeup to suggest tans.
Yes, the music was played gloriously but I think they were grandstanding and ostentatious when the orchestra pits opens up to reveal the players. “Hey look at the 30 of us! Wow see how a nonprofit subsidized theater can throw away money.” Wagner would not have been pleased. He put the musicians in the pit for a reason to achieve Gesamtkunstwerk.
So why does South Pacific speak to my soul? -
Being a cockeyed optimist is a nicer way of saying I am cynical – The great fantasy of meeting a stranger across a crowded room even if it is only a one night stand and falling madly in love or lust.
“Washing that Man Right out of your Hair” that u met the evening before and doing it all over the next night .
Seizing the moment cause who knows tomorrow you may be dead and you don’t want to be singing. “This Nearly was Mine” at your funeral
Working out 5 times a week so I can be “Younger then Springtime” which is why I work out 5 times a week to have “Honey Buns.”
Being on the beach with a bunch of macho sailors
Finding that special island: Coney, Fire or Manhattan.
And singing at the top or your lungs on top of a double-decker bus heading down Fifth Avenue: “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love with a Wonderful Guy!” And he is sitting next to you singing back.
Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you’ll see her
Again and again.
Some enchanted evening
Someone may be laughin’,
You may hear her laughin’
Across a crowded room
And night after night,
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter
Will sing in your dreams.
Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try.
Some enchanted evening
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side,
And make her your own
Or all through your life you
May dream all alone.
Once you have found her,
Never let her go.
Once you have found her,
Never let her go!