Little Rock Look Back: Pulitzer Prize to SOUTH PACIFIC

On May 5, 1950, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific captured the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. This would receive special attention in the Arkansas Gazette. The reason this carried such weight in Arkansas was that the musical had a connection to Little Rock.

The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical, for only the second time in the history of the awards. The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II. The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock. She is actually from a small town in Alabama. But the book does mention Nellie and her mother visiting Little Rock.  The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas. Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

Originally the musical contained a song entitled “My Girl Back Home” in which Nellie sang of being from “Little Rock, A-R-K” while another character sang of being from “Philadelphia, P-A” and “Princeton, N-J.” It is possible the change to Little Rock was made because it offered more lyrical possibilities, but that is only a supposition on the part of the Culture Vulture. That song did appear in the movie version in which Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie Forbush. It was also featured in the 2008 Broadway revival, this time with Kelli O’Hara playing Nellie.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock. Interestingly, the movie was released in 1958, but retained references to Little Rock. That was either a testament to the expense of re-editing it, or the fact that audience reaction had lessened.

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Pulitzers play Little Rock – SOUTH PACIFIC at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in 1981

MDP SoPaIn 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.

 

Rock the Oscars: SOUTH PACIFIC

Written for the stage by Oscar winners Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, along with Oscar nominee Joshua Logan, in 1958 South Pacific was the fourth Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical to make it to the Silver Screen.  With the female leading character, Nellie Forbush, hailing from Little Rock, there are references to Arkansas and its capital city throughout the film.

Mitzi Gaynor, played the Little Rock native, opposite Rossano Brazzi (with singing help from Giorgio Tozzi). Others in the cast were John Kerr, France Nuyen, Ray Walston, Juanita Hall, and Russ Brown.  Only Hall had been in the Broadway cast.

Though the film was financially successful, it was criticized at the time for its plodding direction (by Logan) and its use of tinted washes to reflect the moods of the characters and the movie.  (If the film was in a bright moment, the screen would take a yellowish hue; during tense times, it might get a blueish tint.)

Ironically, given the criticism of the film’s look, it did receive an Oscar nomination for Cinematography-Color.  It also received a nomination for Scoring of a Musical Picture.  South Pacific won the Oscar for Best Sound, which went to Fred Hynes.  He had previously won an Oscar for work on Oklahoma! and would also win one for The Sound of Music.

Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC wins Pulitzer Prize

On May 5, 1950, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific captured the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. This would receive special attention in the Arkansas Gazette. The reason this carried such weight in Arkansas was that the musical had a connection to Little Rock.
The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical, for only the second time in the history of the awards. The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II. The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock. She is actually from a small town in Alabama. The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas. Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

Originally the musical contained a song entitled “My Girl Back Home” in which Nellie sang of being from “Little Rock, A-R-K” while another character sang of being from “Philadelphia, P-A” and “Princeton, N-J.” It is possible the change to Little Rock was made because it offered more lyrical possibilities, but that is only a supposition on the part of the Culture Vulture. That song did appear in the movie version in which Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie Forbush. It was also featured in the 2008 Broadway revival, this time with Kelli O’Hara playing Nellie.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock. Interestingly, the movie was released in 1958, but retained references to Little Rock. That was either a testament to the expense of re-editing it, or the fact that audience reaction had lessened.

Arkansas Heritage Month – SOUTH PACIFIC wins the Pulitzer Prize

SoPa Pul GazOn May 6, 1950, the Associated Press ran a story which would later be carried in the Arkansas Gazette about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific capturing the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.  The reason this carried such weight in Arkansas was that the musical had a connection to Little Rock.

The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical, for only the second time in the history of the awards.  The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan.  The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II.  The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock.  She is actually from a small town in Alabama.  The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas.  Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

Originally the musical contained a song entitled “My Girl Back Home” in which Nellie sang of being from “Little Rock, A-R-K” while another character sang of being from “Philadelphia, P-A” and “Princeton, N-J.”  It is possible the change to Little Rock was made because it offered more lyrical possibilities, but that is only a supposition on the part of the Culture Vulture. That song did appear in the movie version in which Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie Forbush.  It was also featured in the 2008 Broadway revival, this time with Kelli O’Hara playing Nellie.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock.  Interestingly, the movie was released in 1958, but retained references to Little Rock. That was either a testament to the expense of re-editing it, or the fact that audience reaction had lessened.

Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama

SoPa Pul GazThe Pulitzer Prizes will be announced today.  In 1950, one of the recipients in the “Letters, Drama and Music” categories featured a character from Little Rock.

The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical, for only the second time in the history of the awards.  The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan.  The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II.  The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock.  She is actually from a small town in Alabama.  The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas.  Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock.

 

Little Rock Look Back: Oscar Hammerstein II

OHIIOn July 12, 1895, Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein, better known as Oscar Hammerstein II was born. He spent his entire professional life working in the theatre.  One of the musicals he wrote was South Pacific, which featured a character from Little Rock.

In the source novel, Tales of the South Pacific, Forbush is from rural Arkansas.  When Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers and Joshua Logan were adapting it for the stage, they moved the character to Little Rock (or “Small Rock” as the French planter Emil De Becque mistakenly refers to it).

Little Rock is referred to throughout the show.  One song, “My Girl Back Home” contained musical references to Arkansas’ capitol city.  That song was cut before South Pacific opened on Broadway.  It was, however, included in the movie version.  It was also reinstated and included in the 2008 Broadway revival.

Mary Martin won a Tony for originating the role of Nellie Forbush on Broadway. One of the actors who succeeded her was Cloris Leachman. Kelli O’Hara received a Tony nomination in 2008 for the Broadway revival.

South Pacific became the second musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also became the first winner of the Pulitzer for Drama to be based on another Pulitzer prize winner — James Michener won the Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific.

Hammerstein’s creation of a character from Little Rock caused problems when the show was being performed in late 1957 and for a few years after.  With the 1957 desegregation crisis still fresh in people’s memories, a show about a woman from Little Rock facing her own racial prejudices was sometimes a bit much for audiences. Apparently some audiences would boo when Little Rock was mentioned.  But Rodgers and Hammerstein did not change her hometown.

At the 1999 celebration marking the 50th anniversary of South Pacific opening on Broadway, a proclamation from then-Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read.  It paid tribute to Nellie Forbush as an ambassador (albeit fictional) for Little Rock. The proclamation noted that her optimism, forbearance and ability to change for the better were emblems of Little Rock.  Since these were attributes which Mr. Hammerstein himself exhibited, one suspects he would be pleased.

Hammerstein died in 1960 during the run of The Sound of Music (which like South Pacific starred Mary Martin).

For those wanting to see an Oscar Hammerstein II show on his birthday or during his birth month, South Pacific has just started a run in Benton at the Royal Players.