ALAN JEFFERYS: Our World Could Use More Rodgers and Hammersteins
In an era in which there seem to be more revivals on Broadway than originals, it is somewhat amazing to learn that it took almost 60 years to bring back Rodgers and Hammerstein's great musical "South Pacific."
I say "amazing" because this show won the Pulitzer prize and nine Tony awards and ran for almost five years. Most other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have been revived time and again, and it is said that on any given night, "Oklahoma!" is playing somewhere in the world.
"South Pacific" is no longer bypassed, for it opened in New York a few weeks ago to rave notices from critics who were not even born when its curtain first rose at the Majestic Theatre in 1949. The critic from The New York Times, Ben Brantley (the best critic they have had since Brooks Atkinson), confessed that, try as he might, he could not find one serious flaw with this revival.
Part of the reason lies with the director, Bartlet Sher, who opted to stick strictly to the original concept of the show. There is apparently none of the "now we know better" stuff too often embarrassingly plumped into a show that dates back to the glory days of Broadway.
Kelli O'Hara, who plays the part originated by Mary Martin, has a voice that is compared with Audra McDonald, and that is as high as praise can go. People who see "South Pacific" can now expect a treat of music written and sung that soars -- as opposed to today's screech-and-yell crowd.
I have not seen this version of "South Pacific" and will probably not get to New York before it closes. I'm sorry about that, because this is the first show in years that I would like to see. I did see "South Pacific" during its original Broadway run, regrettably after Mary Martin had left it. I liked it and still like the music. Neither it nor "Oklahoma" was among my favorite R&H musicals. "Carousel" and "The King and I" hold those honors.
Why then am I dwelling on this production? It is because of another review, this time by The Wall Street Journal, which was also a rave with a but. The "but" referred to the book, which the reviewer called "preachy." It, according to the reviewer, was a blatant example of the liberalism of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
I challenge this accusation.
I never met Oscar Hammerstein but did know Richard Rodgers fairly well, and I never thought of either as an avowed liberal. If they were, then maybe most of us emerging from World War II were also liberals at that time. Maybe we were more than a little embarrassed by much of the bigotry that prevailed then. Maybe our eyes had been opened by the death of six million Jews who died simply because they were Jewish.
I thought then and think now that the approach to end bigotry and racism used by writers like Hammerstein was the right way to bring this narrow hatred to a close. It was easier to face your prejudices watching "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" than to have it pounded into your head until you rebelled. That little girl from Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, had to come to grips with her innate feelings about interracial romance in "South Pacific" just as thousands of girls did in the real world.
Preachy? That makes as much sense as "sugary" does when applied to "The Sound of Music." That was the subject of this column two weeks ago but, regrettably, it could serve as a perennial subject.
The trouble is that "liberal" does not mean today what it meant 60 years ago, and conservative has also changed dramatically. "Liberal" in those days implied a reaching-out to embrace a world of diverse peoples and stamp out the closed minds that held back progress. Today, too many so-called liberals preach hate and rebellion. Witness the Ministers Wright and Farrakhan who spew forth the most anti-American garbage we have heard since Father Coughlin's invectives in the 1930s.
The pendulum swings slowly but inexorably. When liberal was the thing to be, a conservative was more than likely a hate-filled bigot. It took the late William Buckley to bring conservatism out of the dark ages and open its doors to those of us with far fewer prejudices.
And it took Rodgers and Hammerstein to teach us that racism was not inbred. As the song says, "You Have to be Carefully Taught." I deplore labels like "preachy" and "sugary." People who use those words throw true liberalism backward.
Let's face it; sledgehammers to the kneecaps and baseball bats to the head have not advanced our attitudes much, of late. Maybe we need more Rodgers and Hammersteins today. If nothing else, we would have some enchanted evenings.
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic, entertainment editor and newsman, lives in Pinehurst. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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