South Pacific was based on a novel, Tales of the South Pacific, that told of stories of the Pacific Theater during World War II and is about two romances that struggle to survive and exist through a time of war and racial prejudice. Nellie, an American nurse, and Emile de Becque, a French planter on the island, meet and fall in love. Just when their relationship is about to take the next step, Nellie turns down Emile’s marriage proposal after learning that he has two children from a native woman from the island. Racial prejudice is also seen in Lieutenant Joe Cable’s quick and sudden relationship with Liat, a young Tonkinese girl from a nearby island. Cable’s conflict between what he wants and the racial prejudice that he grew up with can be seen in the number “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” When Emile goes on a dangerous secret mission with Cable and Cable dies, Nellie realizes that she should be with Emile despite his half Tonkinese children.
Before South Pacific was first produced on Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein were encouraged to remove Cable’s number, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” because the issue was too controversial and inappropriate for the musical. Despite the fear that this song would turn people away from the musical, South Pacific was highly successful and well received by the public as well as critics. The musical received a Pulitzer Prize, 9 Tony Awards, 3 Academy Award Nominations, a New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and a Donaldson Award. Since the opening of the musical in 1949, South Pacific has been made into film twice, once in 1958 and again in 2001, and has been revived several times.
Critics and reviewers today still praise South Pacific for bringing up racial prejudice in its plot, as well as criticize it some for the production of the musical. When it was first on Broadway, the race issue was not highly publicized, but since then critics have pointed out and appreciated the subtle, yet powerful political statement found in South Pacific. The issue of mixed children and interracial relationships present in the musical are still issues that people are confronted with and are something that people still struggle to figure out. Casting also became controversy when many characters that were Asian/Pacific Islander and the actresses that played them were not of the Asian or Pacific Islander ethnicity. In the films and revivals, Asian-American actors and actresses were given an opportunity and introduction into film and musical theater.
Even though it has been over 50 years since South Pacific first premiered on Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a lasting musical that people still identify with today.
South Pacific information on the Rodgers and Hammerstein website with synopsis, history, facts, and other information.
“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific: An examination of race and racial issues in the musical