Weeks after attending the Walnut Street’s production of South Pacific, the music is still running around in my head. Given that I consider it my favorite of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, I realized with something of amazement that other than a Conrad Weiser High School production from around 1970, this was the first time I had actually seen it live on stage.
I had wanted to visit the Lincoln Center revival a few years back but just never got around to it, though I did watch (and still have a copy of) that production when it was broadcast on PBS. As wonderful as it was, it just can’t have the impact of a good live production.
So practically my entire view of the show has been colored (pun intended, for those who know the movie) upon the 1958 motion picture, which might explain why I had never been much impressed by “This Nearly Was Mine” which received rather short shrift in that film. Hearing it live in the theatre has transformed it into one of my favorite songs from the score.
And it is, in fact, a score, not just a collection of brilliant tunes, as Jim Lovensheimer details in his excellent book South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten. Rodgers used simple motives to, for example, link Nellie and Emile’s music together and track the progress of their relationship.
While noodling through the South Pacific Vocal Score recently, I discovered an interesting connection.
In Nellie’s first number in Act I, “A Cockeyed Optimist”, the middle section is based on a couple of falling fourths (at the words “I hear the human race is falling on its face”).
At the end of the act, when Nellie learns of Emile’s deceased Polynesian wife which brings her southern prejudices to the fore, the finale to Act I begins as underscoring, playing that part of the melody, but the fourths are now dissonantly harmonized.
After Lt. Cable sings “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” in the second act, Emile launches into an angry diatribe against irrational prejudice and sings the words “I was cheated before and I’m cheated again” to similar falling fourths.
Possibly Rodgers intended those fourths to represent prejudice, as the music is entitled “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught (Continuation)”. Interestingly, that piece of music was not in the score on opening night. It was added about a year into the run, a very unusual procedure, so one can infer that Rodgers and Hammerstein felt very strongly about it.