Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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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.

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Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC opens on Broadway 68 years ago today

Sixty-eight years ago today, a fictional Little Rock heroine took the stage of a Broadway megahit when South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949. It settled in for a run of 1925 performances. Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation. It is also the only Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner to be based on Pulitzer Prize winning source material. This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.) At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards (sometimes listed as eight because Book and Score were not broken separate from Best Musical that year—but some sources incorrectly separate them.) It was named Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan). This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit.

Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting. Martin would reunite with Hayward, Rodgers & Hammerstein ten years later for The Sound of Music. Pinza and Tabbert reunited in 1954 for Fanny which would be the final Broadway credit for each gentleman. McCormick stayed with the show the entire run, except for vacations.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacificand Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 2008, Lincoln Center Theatre produced the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway. It opened on April 3, just four days shy of the musical’s 59th anniversary.  The cast was led by Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara (as Little Rock girl Nellie Forbush), Matthew Morrison (before “Glee”), Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.  The production restored a song which had been written for the original Broadway production that had been dropped. “My Girl Back Home” was featured in the movie version and in this Broadway revival. In it O’Hara and Morrison sang of their hometowns of Little Rock and Philadelphia.  The production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 7: Best Musical Revival, Actor in a Musical (Szot), Director of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Lighting Design (Donald Holder) and Sound Design (Scott Lehrer).


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: Carol Channing

Carol C2On January 31, 1921, future “Little Girl from Little Rock” Carol Channing was born. Alas it was in Seattle.

After gaining the notice of New York critics and audiences in the musical revue, Lend an Ear, Channing achieved Broadway stardom playing fictional Little Rock native Lorelei Lee (the creation of Anita Loos) in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In this show, which opened in December 1949, she introduced the Leo Robin-Jule Styne songs “Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  Her work in this show predated Tony Award nominations being announced.  (The Tony that year went to Mary Martin for playing another Little Rock native – Nellie Forbush in South Pacific).

Her first Tony nomination came for the The Vamp in 1956. Five years later, she earned a second nomination for Show Girl.  In 1964, she won the Actress in a Musical Tony for her second signature role playing the title character in Hello, Dolly!  Channing also earned a special Tony in 1968 for Dolly when it became the longest-running Broadway musical.

She returned to Lorelei Lee in the reworked update entitled Lorelei and earned a Tony nomination.  In 1995 she earned a Lifetime Achievement Tony.

In the 1960s, she visited Little Rock on a tour of Hello, Dolly! which played at Robinson Auditorium. It was arguably the biggest Broadway show to have played Robinson at that time.  While she was in Little Rock she spent time at the Governor’s Mansion and was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock.  (Nearly 30 years later, she recounted very glowingly her Little Rock visit to the Culture Vulture.)

In 1993, she spent her birthday in Washington DC at a White House dinner for the National Governors’ Association.  This was the Clintons’ first offiical White House dinner after moving in to the residence eleven days prior.  President Bill Clinton led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.  She remarked to the President that she was Christian Scientist and didn’t celebrate birthdays, which meant she didn’t get any older.  He replied that it meant the night was her first birthday (it was her 72nd in actuality).


Tony Awards Week – SOUTH PACIFIC – “How Far Away from Little Rock A-r-k”

southpacific_obcSeveral Tony Awards have been won by a show with a main character from Little Rock.

South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949 and settled in for a run of 1925 performances. Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation. It is also the only Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner to be based on Pulitzer Prize winning source material. This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.) At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards: Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan).

This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit. Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacific and Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 2008, Lincoln Center Theatre produced the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway. It opened on April 3, just four days shy of the musical’s 59th anniversary.  The cast was led by Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara (as Little Rock girl Nellie Forbush), Matthew Morrison (before “Glee”), Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.  The production restored a song which had been written for the original Broadway production that had been dropped. “My Girl Back Home” was featured in the movie version and in this Broadway revival. In it O’Hara and Morrison sang of their hometowns of Little Rock and Philadelphia.  The production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 7: Best Musical Revival, Actor in a Musical (Szot), Director of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Lighting Design (Donald Holder) and Sound Design (Scott Lehrer).

Sher, Yeargan, Zuber, Holder and Lehrer are all reuniting again next season to work on a revival of Fiddler on the Roof.  One of the producers of that is Little Rock native (and three time Tony winner) Will Trice.

While Trice has not starred in a production of South Pacific, his mother Judy Trice starred in a statewide tour in the 1970s. A few years later, his sister Kathryn Pryor, starred in the Central High production.


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Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC opens on Broadway 66 years ago today

southpacific_obcSixty-six years ago today, a fictional Little Rock heroine took the stage of a Broadway megahit when South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949. It settled in for a run of 1925 performances. Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation. It is also the only Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner to be based on Pulitzer Prize winning source material. This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.) At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards (sometimes listed as eight because Book and Score were not broken separate from Best Musical that year—but some sources incorrectly separate them.) It was named Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan). This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit.

Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting. Martin would reunite with Hayward, Rodgers & Hammerstein ten years later for The Sound of Music. Pinza and Tabbert reunited in 1954 for Fanny which would be the final Broadway credit for each gentleman. McCormick stayed with the show the entire run, except for vacations.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacificand Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 2008, Lincoln Center Theatre produced the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway. It opened on April 3, just four days shy of the musical’s 59th anniversary.  The cast was led by Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara (as Little Rock girl Nellie Forbush), Matthew Morrison (before “Glee”), Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.  The production restored a song which had been written for the original Broadway production that had been dropped. “My Girl Back Home” was featured in the movie version and in this Broadway revival. In it O’Hara and Morrison sang of their hometowns of Little Rock and Philadelphia.  The production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 7: Best Musical Revival, Actor in a Musical (Szot), Director of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Lighting Design (Donald Holder) and Sound Design (Scott Lehrer).

Bartlett and O’Hara are reunited with Lincoln Center right now for a revival of The King and I. The song “Getting to Know You” from that show was originally written for South Pacific as a song called “Suddenly Lucky.”  It was replaced in South Pacific by “(I’m in Love with a) Wonderful Guy.”


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.