The Aloha Performing Arts Company‘s production of South Pacific, the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, opens this Friday (12 February 2016). In the time-honored theatre tradition, rehearsals leading up to opening night will expand to fill all available time and space, while the lives of each and every person in the show are put on hold.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba is “in the pit” (a member of the orchestra).
That’s why this week is Hell Week.
South Pacific, YFNA reads, was a major hit. So major that James Michener (yes, that James Michener), who wrote the book upon which the musical was based, and was then a struggling writer, was able to take his 1% share of the profits, leave a job editing school textbooks, and spend the rest of his life writing the doorstop novels for which he is famous.
That was then. Sixty-five years ago then. So why stage it now? Yes, it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein at what many think was their best. Yes, many of the tunes are catchy, and they still feature in school band recitals. But the Second World War, the setting for the play, which at the time was not only ‘recent past’, but an all-consuming part of that past, has now almost completely passed from living memory. Some of the play’s attitudes, especially pertaining to women and women’s relationships with men, reflect the time of its composition and now seem (ahem) archaic. And, dear reader, you may have noticed that there aren’t a whole lot of school bands available to play old Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes any more. Hell. If today’s teens consider Smells Like Teen Spirit to be ancient history, to what dumpster are they likely to consign Bali Ha‘i? What can this work possibly offer to a modern audience, except possibly a second-hand nostalgia to the retirees who are so much a part of the Hawai‘i Island landscape?
Several august critics have written answers to these questions. None of these, however, resonated particularly well with YFNA – until he attended the “technical rehearsal” run-through, and had the script’s offhand use of the epithet Jap thrust into his ears.
Flashback to the 1980s. Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba has submitted a manuscript for publication in a scientific journal – something that YFNA has done 90 or so times since 1979. In that manuscript, he cited a work that had been published in the Japanese Journal of Phycology – abbreviated, as all journal titles were then (and, to a lesser extent, are now), Jap. J. Phycol.
By the 1980s, it had started occurring to people, even in these Untied States, that the word “Japs”, especially as expressed in the various wartime propaganda movies that were still making the rounds on local and syndicated television ([expletive] Japs!), was perhaps not the friendliest term to use for the citizens of one of the USA’s staunchest allies and largest trading partners. Especially in formal discourse (which, YFNA reckons, includes scientific papers). So folk had started to replace the abbreviation Jap. with the more emotionally-neutral abbreviation Jpn. Accordingly, YFNA submitted the manuscript in question, with the journal article being cited listed as belonging to the Jpn. J. Phycol.
It came to pass that the manuscript was accepted for publication, subject to the correction of a few minor errors of grammar, syntax, and typography, and it was returned to YFNA for the correction of those errors. One of which was the scoring out of Jpn. J. Phycol. and its replacement with Jap. J. Phycol.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba restored Jpn. J. Phycol. and returned the manuscript to the journal with a note to the editor: WWII is over (or words to that effect).
The change stuck.
(The Japanese Journal of Phycology subsequently resolved the matter by changing its name to Phycological Research.)
“Jap” in South Pacific could scarcely have been avoided without sacrificing a necessary connection with an audience recently at war, without sacrificing the sense of authenticity in the dialogue of military forces at war, for whom political correctness with respect to the Japanese was simply not going to happen.
This did not mean, however, that Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Joshua Logan (who wrote or coached most of the military dialogue) were unaware or dismissive of the ‘prejudice’ problem. Quite the opposite. The plot, as you, dear reader, may know, revolves around two characters (Ens. Nellie Forbush, USN and Lt. Joseph Cable, USMC) whose loves lives are derailed by their prejudices – Forbush, because her beau had previously been married to ‘black’ (Polynesian) women; Cable, because he feared the reaction of his white relations to his Tonkinese (Vietnamese, for those born after the fall of French Indochina) prospective bride.
The fulcrum of the plot is the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”, in which Cable explores the root of his prejudice, and explains it to Forbush’s distraught beau, Emile de Becque, who has been subjected to the consequences of Forbush’s prejudice. Both Cable and de Becque, in despair, subsequently volunteer for the dangerous espionage mission of coastwatcher – from which only de Becque makes it back, to the welcoming arms of Forbush, who (fortunately for the plot) has, in de Becque’s absence and likely demise, recognized her error.
The deliberate inclusion, and central importance, of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” to South Pacific was not lost on audiences. Representatives from New England, particularly Boston, urged deletion of the song from local performances, lest riots ensue. The show received few bookings from former Confederate states, and the playwrights were commonly accused of promoting miscegenation and having, at best, Communist sympathies. Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Logan steadfastly refused to remove the song, claiming, correctly, that it represented the entire point of South Pacific.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to join the fray
‘Gainst people whose language you can’t say,
Or people who wear hajib all day,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Yeah. South Pacific, for all its archaisms, is timely, all right. (And no, that last verse is not in the original …)
In the score from which we are playing, there is an annotation at the end of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”. It is “Applause Segue”, which means we on stage and in the orchestra are to wait for audience applause after the song before proceeding with the next business. We have been instructed to proceed without waiting for applause. We don’t expect any. Not because the song is poorly done, but because of what the song says.