Sep 29, 2015

South Pacific: A High School Music

I don't care much for musicals, but I've had a soft spot for South Pacific (1949), the Rogers and Hammerstein musical adaption of James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (1948), ever since I saw it performed live 8 times in high school.

I was in the orchestra pit, so I had no choice.  But anything that required my male classmates to parade around with their shirts off was fine with me, even if they were singing the heterosexist "There's Nothing like a Dame."










Over the years I've seen four more live versions, at my nephew's high school, Augustana College, a community theater in Ohio, and a gay synagogue in West Hollywood.  But until recently, I never saw the 1958 movie with Ray Walston (later on My Favorite Martian), Jack Mullaney (later on It's About Time), and Ken Clark (the bodybuilder with something extra). (Gay icon Robert Goulet starred in the original.)



Most musical comedies have two hetero-romantic plots, one romantic and the other humorous.  In South Pacific, the romantic plot is handled by Jim Cable (in this case, Anderson Davis in a 2008 Baltimore production).  A soldier stationed on a small island in the Pacific during World War II, he falls in love with the native girl Liat, but his family's prejudices keep them from marrying.  Then he dies on a secret mission.





Here's another Jim (Matthew Morrison, who plays Will Schuester on Glee) from the 2008 Broadway revival.




The humorous plot is handled by Nellie Forbush, one of musical theater's big-voiced, gutsy broads, who falls in love with Emile, a fey, sophisticated, gay-coded plantation owner -- they perform a gender-bending number in drag -- but rejects him because he has mixed-race children.  He goes on the secret mission, too, but returns alive just in time for Nellie to overcome her prejudice and marry him.

The prejudice theme, plus the gender-bending romance between the gay-coded guy and girl, provides adequate gay symbolism.  But you hardly need any, with all the muscles to look at.