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).


Black History Month – Ella Fitzgerald and Robinson Auditorium

ellaElla Fitzgerald appeared at Robinson Auditorium in the 1940s.  She made the stops as she crisscrossed the US performing her hit songs.

Born in Virginia in 1917, she was raised in Yonkers. At 17 she won a contest at the Apollo Theatre which launched her career.  Saxophonist Benny Carter and bandleader Chick Webb were both instrumental in helping her establish her career.  She would tour with Webb until his death, and then took over as bandleader.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.

She later toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and there met Ray Brown. The two would marry and adopt a son, Ray Jr.  Though they divorced in 1952, they remained friends.

In the late 1940s through the 1960s, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.

As she moved into the 1970s, Ella kept performing. She also started receiving honors and honorary degrees.  She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979.  In 1987, President Reagan bestowed upon her the National Medal of the Arts.  Her final concert was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall.  She died in June 1996 in California.


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Arkansas Heritage Month – “Little Rock” Songs

Monroe RussellThe Capital City has popped up in a variety of songs in different genres over the years.  Today we look at five notable instances.

Collin Raye’s 1994 song “Little Rock” peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard Country charts and was Number 14 for the entire year.  Found on Raye’s album Extremes, it was written by Tom Douglas.  The song centers on a man who is trying to rebuild his life after battles with alcohol have affected his marriage.

Notable lyric: “I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock.”

 

Hayes Carll’s take on Arkansas’ capital is also known as “Little Rock.” It was his title track from the 2005 album.  It tells the tale of a man who has traveled all over the US and is excited to make it back to Little Rock. With a driving country-rock beat, it typifies Carll’s style of music which has one foot squarely in both camps as a singer-songwriter.

Notable lyric: “All of my life I’ve tried to find/ “a piece of this earth for my peace of mind.”

 

Leo Robin and Jule Styne wrote the 1949 song “Little Girl from Little Rock” for their Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Introduced by Carol Channing, it told of quintessential 1920s vamp Lorelei Lee’s rise from “the wrong side of the tracks” to Manhattan’s elite neighborhoods.  It has remained part of Channing’s repertoire in nightclubs and concerts.  In 1953, it was retooled with sanitized lyrics and made into a duet for Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the film version of the musical.

Notable lyric: “Then someone broke my heart in Little Rock/and I up and left old Arkansas.”

 

Little Rock has also appeared in several “List songs” including “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Originally written with Australian place names in 1959, it was adapted to North American places in 1962 by Hank Snow. Arkansan Johnny Cash recorded it in 1996.

Little Rock appears in the second verse: “Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa,”

 

Billy Joel’s 1989 “We Didn’t Start the Fire” contains three references to Little Rock. In the first section’s look at 1949, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific is mentioned.  With a heroine from Little Rock, this musical was the most popular show on Broadway during the 1948-1949 and 1949-1950 Broadway seasons.  The second comes in the 1953 portion with “Rockefeller” which referenced playboy Winthrop Rockefeller’s abandonment of New York City for Arkansas. He had residences in both Little Rock and on Petit Jean Mountain. The final entry came in 1957, when Joel references the Central High integration crisis with the lyric “Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac, Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge on the River Kwai.”

 


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.


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.


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.