(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/14; Photo: Photograph: Johan Persson.)
Old shows often pass nervously through today’s ideological mettle-detectors, especially when depicting racial and international relations. But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a 1949 musical about American military and French economic exploitation of paradise islands, sets off impressively few alarms.
Oscar Hammerstein was an anti-racism writer and campaigner as early as 1927’s Show Boat, and South Pacific expands the agenda. Nurse Nellie Forbush’s rejection of Parisian émigré Emile de Becque – who has earlier stimulated her to sing “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy!” – when she discovers the widower has mixed-race children seems contemptible now, but was also condemned in the show 72 years ago.
A Rodgers and Hammerstein song, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel), , and South Pacific’s You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, arguing that racism is not innate but incubated within societies and families, might, after recent events, usefully be played on a loop outside Wembley Stadium, 10 Downing Street and the Home Office.
Hammerstein mentored Stephen Sondheim, and the pupil’s Pacific Overtures (1976) nods, in title and critique of colonialism, to the earlier work. That through-line feels emphasised in this South Pacific by director Daniel Evans, musical director Cat Beveridge and choreographer Ann Yee.