Rock the Oscars 2019: 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.

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Little Rock Look Back: OKLAHOMA! comes to Little Rock for the first time

Program cover from OKLAHOMA!’s February 1948 visit to Little Rock. From the collection of Mary and Booker Worthen.

On February 9, 1948, as the original Broadway run was about to mark five years on Broadway, the national tour of Oklahoma! made its way to Little Rock for eight performances. The week-long stay it had in Little Rock at Robinson Center was a record for that building that would last until Wicked came in 2010.  (Hello, Dolly! in 1966 and Beauty and the Beastin 2002 had both equalled the record.)

By the time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s first show made it to Little Rock, they were working on their fourth stage show, South Pacific, which had a leading character from Little Rock.

To get Robinson Auditorium ready for Oklahoma!, the Auditorium Commission had to spend $2,000 on upgrades.  That would be the equivalent of just under $21,000 today.

Oklahoma! opened at Robinson on Monday, February 9, 1948.  With eight performances, approximately 24,000 tickets were on sale during the run of the show.  There was a cast of 67 actors and 28 musicians.  The cast was led by Ridge Bond, Carolyn Adair, Alfred Cibelli Jr., Patricia Englund, and David Morris.  Mr. Bond had relatives who lived in Little Rock.  He was a native of Claremore, Oklahoma, which was the town in which the story took place.

OkAdLR

Ad in ARKANSAS GAZETTE on February 8, 1948.

While they were in Little Rock, the stars of the show made an appearance at Reed Music on February 10.  The music store (located at 112 and 114 East 7th Street–across the street from the Donaghey Building) was promoting the sale of the Oklahoma! cast albums, sheet music, and recordings of songs from Oklahoma! by other singers.

Both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat carried reviews of the show.  Another item, which appeared in the paper that week was a syndicated column which noted that the film rights for the show had been sold. It was speculated that the star would be Bing Crosby.  It would actually be 1955 before the film was made, and Mr. Crosby had no connection to that movie.  By the time it was made, the stars were Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.  Mr. MacRae would appear in Little Rock for the 1963 opening of the Arkansas Arts Center.  Ms. Jones has made several concert appearances in Little Rock over the years.

Little Rock had seen its fair share of top Broadway shows on tour.  Prior to Robinson’s opening and since then, many well-known actors and popular shows had played Little Rock.  But just as it had been on Broadway, Oklahoma! in Little Rock was more than a show — it was an event!

Over the years, Oklahoma! has been performed by schools, churches, community theatres, dinner theatres, and colleges.  National tours have come through Arkansas again.  People have become jaded or dismissive of it, because they have seen it performed so often — and sometimes badly.  So it is hard to understand the excitement that was felt by Little Rock audiences in 1948 when they first saw it on the stage of Robinson Center.

This weekend, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is bringing Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III, grandson of the beloved librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, to host a celebration of some of America’s most cherished music from the stage.

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.

Sixty nine years of enchanted evenings with SOUTH PACIFIC

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

Sixty-nine 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.

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.

 

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.

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).