In the summer of 1981, the touring production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was causing controversy by bleeping out “whore” in its radio ads in the Little Rock market. At the same time, a formerly controversial musical was settling in for a seven week run in the Arkansas capital city at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse.
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had originally collaborated with Joshua Logan on South Pacific, the team attracted some complaints for the preachiness of the story as it tackled racism. It was the look at these social issues which probably prompted the Pulitzer committee to make South Pacific only the second musical to win the prize. (It was also the first Drama Pulitzer recipient to be based on another Pulitzer recipient – in this case James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.)
With a leading character from Little Rock, South Pacific was caught up in anti-Arkansas backlash during and after the Central High integration crisis. A production on Long Island received boos when the character of Nellie announced she was from Little Rock. The original national tour had a hard time booking spots in the south due to the themes. Shifts in attitudes about race and miscegenation had rendered South Pacific a period piece by 1981 – and a non-threatening summer fare for Murry’s.
Directed by Jack Payne, the cast included Mary Winston Smith, Greg Carter, Bruce Rainey, Leslie Hall (now Basham), Dianne Tack, Chip Huddleston, and Beth Buffalo.
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted. Many of these titles have been produced numerous times. This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.