And the Pulitzer goes 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.

A Rep-trospective

It was one year ago today, on April 24, 2018, that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre announced it was cancelling its last production of the season and suspending operations.

Most of its fans were in shock.  Some had heard rumblings that not everything was copasetic financially.

As supporters worked through the stages of grief, they asked: “How had this happened?” “Is there a path forward?” “What can we do to Save the Rep?”

In the coming days it was confirmed that the situation had not happened overnight. As with many other businesses and people, the Rep had been living off of future proceeds. And when those failed to materialize from ticket sales and donations, something drastic had to be done.

And many things were done.

After the decision to suspend operations and lay off most of the staff (with the remaining staff having no assurances of continued employment come Labor Day), longtime supporters Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector stepped in as part of a volunteer interim leadership team.  Together with Board members and other supporters they were able to map out a strategy to stem financial losses which gave the organization a modicum of breathing room in order to assess more permanent next steps. (Incidentally, Rector’s father performed much the same function for the Arkansas Arts Center fifty years earlier in 1968 when it had faced a similar situation.)

Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker stepped in to as interim artistic director to help determine options for moving forward, provided that finances stabilized.

The John & Robyn Horn Foundation approved a challenge grant of $25,000 designated for “General Support” and the Windgate Charitable Foundation provided a challenge grant for $1,000,000, with an initial payment of $75,000 for operating needs. Unlike some challenge grants, Windgate did not withhold payment until the entire $1,000,000 had been raised.

Community leaders including Skip Rutherford and Stacy Sells staged a “Save the Rep” rally which drew hundreds of people to Main Street on a sweltering May evening and raised money for the Rep.

Education offerings continued at the Rep’s annex on Main Street and, in fact, were expanded under the leadership of Anna Fraley Kimmell.

One of the Rep’s problems had been it owned four properties which made it real estate rich, but cash poor.  In August, the Rep sold an apartment building used to house visiting actors.  The sale cut the property debt in half and offered some much-needed financial assets.  Also that month, the biennial Gridiron show pledged all of its proceeds to support the Rep.

Focus groups and community meetings garnered input from patrons throughout Central Arkansas.

Then, just as it appeared the Rep was hitting its stride on the way to renewal, the unthinkable happened.  Baker suffered an aneurysm and died a few days later.  In addition to working on setting the season, he was set to direct the first show of the rebooted Arkansas Rep.

Through grief, the Rep continued to push forward.  In November, the new season was announced. It would be four shows plus a youth show running throughout 2019.  A few weeks later, the Rep’s new leadership was announced.

Tony winning Broadway producer Will Trice, a Little Rock native who acted on the Rep’s stage in the 1990s as a teenager, would become the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director.  While he won’t be in Little Rock as a full-time resident until the summer, he is already on the job as he splits his time between New York City and Little Rock.  The staff is gradually getting built out, as well.

Native Gardens opened last week as the second production of the season (following February’s run of Chicago).

Whither Arkansas Rep in the future?

Long-term financial stability is still a goal, not yet a guaranteed reality.  Finances are in better shape, to be certain.  But the fact remains – theatre is expensive. Even though the Rep has a leaner structure, there are basic levels that cost.  There still is the ever-present balancing act of offering productions that audiences will want to see yet are economically feasible.

The influx of money that was given over the past year must be maintained…and grown. Each year! There is not an apartment building to sell for $750,000 this year.  While there are ticket sales, unlike this time last year, those sales are not pure profit. And the profit margin on musicals is traditionally smaller than on plays.

Audiences cannot lapse into the “Arkansas Rep has reopened, all crises averted” fallacy.  Their attendance, their money, their passion, their excitement, their word of mouth, their money (yes it is that crucial that it bears repeating) is needed.  In non-profit theatre, ticket sales NEVER cover all the costs. This applies to Rep, for certain. And while no dollar amount is too small, moving it forward will require people to increase their investment.

And the Rep’s financial need is not occurring in a vacuum. Major cultural institutions and smaller organizations are also needing financial support.  Area universities are struggling because of declines in student enrollment (due partially to dropping birth rates two decades ago) so they need increased donations to sustain operations. Few large Arkansas-based businesses are able to provide substantial contributions.

When it comes to the Rep and other cultural entities, it cannot be either/or. It must be a both/and mentality.

So…. Where is Arkansas Rep today?

Certainly better off than it was a year ago.

It has defied the odds and come back from the suspension of operations. Many, if not most, theatres that take a pause never resume.

There is a lot of work left to do. But with a collective effort, it is possible.

To quote from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America, which the Rep produced in the 1990s, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. … More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

You cannot spell Pulitzer without LIT

The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes are announced later today.  Over the years, there have been several Pulitzer winners with connections to Little Rock.

In 1939,  Little Rock native John Gould Fletcher, a scion of a politically prominent family, won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his work Selected Poems.  He appears to be the first Pulitzer Prize winner with Little Rock connections.

The 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to South Pacific. With a leading lady who is from Little Rock, this Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan musical explores race against the backdrop of World War II.  It is based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer for Fiction. (Because it was a collection of interrelated short stories, the category was changed from Novel to Fiction from that year onward.)  But in the Michener book, Forbush is not from Little Rock.

The Arkansas Gazette made Pulitzer history in 1958 by winning both the Public Service and Editorial prizes in the same year. This was the first time that one organization had received both awards in the same year.  These were for the coverage of and response to the 1957 integration of Central High School by the Little Rock Nine.  J. N. Heiskell was the paper’s owner and editor, while Harry Ashmore led the editorial page.  Relman Morin of the Associated Press received the Pulitzer for National Reporting for his coverage of the events at Central.  Apparently Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat was the jurors’ choice to receive the Pulitzer for Photography. But the Board opted to give the prize to another photographer.  Some speculate that the Pulitzer Board did not want to give four prizes in the same year for the same story.

Current Little Rock resident Paul Greenberg won the 1969 Pulitzer for Editorial Writing.  at the time, he worked for the Pine Bluff Commercial.   In 1986, he was a finalist in the same category.  Greenberg moved to Little Rock to join the staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992.  While no longer the Editorial Page Editor, Greenberg continues to write columns for the newspaper.

Former Little Rock resident Richard Ford received the 1996 Pulitzer for Fiction for his novel Independence Day.  As a young boy of eight, and for several years after, Ford spent much time at Little Rock’s Marion Hotel with his grandparents.  In making the presentation, the Pulitzer Board noted it was, “A visionary account of American life, Independence Day reveals a man and country with unflinching comedy and the specter of hope and even permanence…”

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001 went to David Auburn.  A 1987 graduate of Hall High School, Auburn was recognized for his play Proof.  The Pulitzer Board described Proof thus: “This poignant drama about love and reconciliation unfolds on the back porch of a house settled in a suburban university town, that is, like David Auburn’s writing, both simple and elegant.”  Auburn also served as a 2014 juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  While a student in Little Rock, Auburn participated in theatre at the Arkansas Arts Center.

A Pulitzer Preview – Prizing Mount Holly Cemetery

The Pulitzer Prizes are to be announced tomorrow (Monday, April 15).  This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the prizes, though not all of the current categories have been around since 1917.

Mount Holly Cemetery not only touts that it is the site of a whole host of elected officials, it is also the only place in Arkansas where two Pulitzer Prize recipients are buried.

The cemetery is open every day, but a special visit to these two prize winner gravesites can be made on Sunday, April 28, during the Mount Holly Cemetery Association’s annual “Restore in Perpetuity” fundraiser picnic.

In 1939, John Gould Fletcher became the first Southern poet to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  He was born into a prominent Little Rock family in 1886.  Fletcher was awarded the prize for his collection Selected Poems which was published by Farrar in 1938.  Two years earlier, he had been commissioned by the Arkansas Gazette to compose an epic poem about the history of Arkansas in conjunction with the state’s centennial.

Fletcher is buried next to his wife, author Charlie May Simon and his parents (his father was former Little Rock Mayor John Gould Fletcher).  Other relatives are buried nearby in the cemetery.

The other Pulitzer Prize winner buried in Mount Holly is J. N. Heiskell, the longtime editor of the Arkansas Gazette.  It was Heiskell, in fact, who asked Fletcher to compose the poem about Arkansas.  Heiskell served as editor of the Gazette from 1902 through 1972.  He died at the age of 100 in 1972.

Under his leadership, the Gazette earned two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High.  One was for Harry Ashmore’s editorial writing and the other was for Public Service.

Heiskell remained in charge of the Gazette until his death in 1972.  He is buried alongside his wife with other relatives nearby.  Also not too far from Mr. Heiskell are two of his nemeses, proving that death and cemeteries can be the great equalizer. In the early days of his Gazette stewardship, he often locked horns with Senator (and former Governor) Jeff Davis. Later in Mr. Heiskell’s career, he vehemently disagreed with Dr. Dale Alford, who had been elected to Congress on a segregationist platform.

70 Years of SOUTH PACIFIC

Original Broadway production marquee of the Majestic Theatre – photo from the Shubert Organization

Seventy 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.

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 Pacific and Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Rock the Oscars 2019: A SOLDIER’S STORY

A SOLDIER’S STORY, Denzel Washington, 1984

A SOLDIER’S STORY, Denzel Washington, 1984

In September and October of 1983, Norman Jewison and the cast of A Soldier’s Story filmed the movie at various locations in Arkansas.  Little Rock’s Lamar Porter Field was the site for the baseball scenes.

Adolph Caesar would receive an Oscar nomination for his performance in this movie.  Howard Rollins had recently been an Oscar nominee for his performance in Ragtime.  Future Oscar winner Denzel Washington was also featured in the cast.

Based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Soldier’s Play, the movie was directed by Jewison from a script adapted by Fuller.  The film was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Caesar in the Best Supporting Actor category and Fuller in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

While the movie was filming in Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton visited the set.  He had also been instrumental in making the Arkansas National Guard and some of the military facilities in the state available.  In addition to filming at Lamar Porter, scenes were shot in Fort Smith and at Fort Chaffee.