South Pacific


I love musicals, and I have a talent for remembering lyrics.  Unfortunately, my singing voice is atrocious, but now that my baby daughter Julie needs to be pacified every night, I have finally found my audience.  Last night, I was giving her my rendition of Younger than Springtime, and it got me thinking about that scene from South Pacific.

As you’ll recall, Lt. Joe Cable is serving on an island in the south Pacific during WWII.  He meets and falls in love with a local Tonkinese girl, but decides that he can’t imagine settling down with her.  Instead, he volunteers for a dangerous mission and gets himself killed.  Actually, the story is pretty forgettable, but the music is some of Rogers and Hammerstein’s best, and Some Enchanted Evening, Younger than Springtime, I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy, and Bali Ha’i seem to have acquired a life of their own.

Anyway, I first saw this musical as a kid, and to me it was obvious why Lt. Joe couldn’t marry the girl Liat.  Is she going to become American and abandon her tribe, or is he going to become Tonkinese and abandon his country?  One of them must abandon his/her whole society for a person he/she just met.  It’s madness.  What religion would the children be raised in?  Is Liat going to become Christian and abandon her ancestral cult, or is Cable going to take up idol worship and betray his Savior?  Or will they just not bring their children up in any religion, condemning them to functional atheism?

I was surprised to realize, when I got older, that the writers didn’t feel this way at all, that the behavior of their own character which seemed perfectly sensible to me seemed completely irrational to them.  The message I was supposed to get was that Lt. Cable was just held back by irrational prejudice.  I was quite disappointed to realize this, because I think it makes the story much less interesting.

Then there’s the hypocrisy of it:  a Jew, Oscar Hammerstein II, lecturing gentiles on the goodness of miscegenation.  His people, after all, think it reasonable to preserve themselves by forbidding out-marriage.  Oh, but that’s different, we hear.  When the Jews do it, it’s to preserve their heritage; when whites do it, it’s because of “hate”.  Nonsense–all peoples discourage out-marriage for the same group-evolutionary reason.  What’s really going on is that Jewish group preservation is regarded as legitimate, while white group preservation is not.  Now, I myself don’t care much about the white race, and I can’t imagine having a problem with marrying a non-white girl (if I weren’t already married).  The disparity of cult thing would bother me though.  I don’t think I could be happy marrying a heathen, and I’m sure it would cause serious concerns as far as children are concerned.

I hope nobody thinks I’m carrying a grudge against Rogers and Hammerstein.  They did, after all, also write a musical about Austrian Catholic aristocrats, and they gave me a good chunck of my repertoire.

P.S. The best South Pacific recording is the one with Jose Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Mandy Patinkin.

6 Responses

  1. Mandy Patinkin. I saw him a couple of years ago in “The Tempest” in New York City, as Prospero. It was a lovely production, and it’s such a lovely play. Patinkin was pitch perfect. I was biased because a dear friend of mine played Miranda, but I left the theater haunted and enriched. There’s nothing like truly lovely art.

  2. Should read “Mandy Patinkin is great” in the first sentence!

  3. Mandy Patinkin is great. Joe Cable. Inigo Montoya. When has his performance not been memorable?

  4. I’m enough of a philistine that I only associate Mandy Patinkin with Criminal Minds and Dead Like Me. Wonder what that says about me…

  5. Well, I thought of The Princess Bride.

  6. I didn’t even know he had been in musicals before I read your post, though, and I was only vaguely aware that he was involved with The Princess Bride.

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