Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) and the navy nurses sing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” in the Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific”

On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

JAMES MINCHENER

The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.

Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.

EZIO PINZA and MARY MARTIN

The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.

RICHARD RODGERS and OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN

We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.

South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.

What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

Sometime in the early 1960s, I went with a couple of my cousins to hear Louis Armstrong and his band play at Seton Hall University. I can’t remember how I decided to attend that show; there was not a single Armstrong recording among my LPs – which were dominated by operatic arias and country-and-western songs. I knew Armstrong from his television appearances, and I do recall finding him irresistible: not the trumpeter — I didn’t know from trumpets — the whole package. Whenever Armstrong’s image appeared on the black-and-white screen, I would pay attention. He was unique, and he was entertaining.

I was not aware until I read Ricky Riccardi’s recent book, What a Wonderful World, that the quality that attracted me to Louis Armstrong was the very thing that some folks found irritating, disappointing, even traitorous. Jazz purists objected to Armstrong’s departure from his musical roots in his native New Orleans, and many black Americans objected to his on-stage persona, in which they saw the perpetuation of the minstrel end man – a clown whose vocation was amusing white audiences. This was complicated by the fact that although Armstrong was at the height of his international fame in the heyday of the American civil rights movement, he played no visible part in the campaign — this, despite the fact that he and his band had often felt the sting of prejudice.

In fact, Armstrong refused for decades to appear in New Orleans as long as local laws prohibited mixed-race bands — perhaps an ironic position for him to take, given the fact that one of the raps on him was that he was willing to play before segregated audiences. His explanation was that he played where his manager booked him, and that he played for whoever wanted to hear him — and they were legion. Armstrong maintained that he contributed as much as anyone else to the progress of black Americans, because he paved the way for others to be received by white audiences.

His bookings are an interesting topic in Riccardi’s book. Armstrong’s manager during the last several decades of his career was Joe Glaser, a Chicago tough guy with a criminal background. There was some kind of bond between the two men — so much so that their arrangement was based on a handshake so that Glaser’s financial obligations to Armstrong were not spelled out. Glaser certainly got rich on the relationship, and Armstrong insisted that he had everything he wanted in life, including his  daily regimen of marijuana and an herbal laxative that he treated as kind of a sacrament.

Riccardi describes in some detail the schedule kept by Armstrong and his band, the All Stars. It’s exhausting just to read about it. It was not unusual for the musicians to perform forty one-nighters in a row without a break — and this went on for decades. Outsiders thought Glaser was taking advantage of Armstrong, wringing out every dime he could before the man dropped dead. Armstrong denied this; Riccardi doesn’t seem to accept it, but even in the material the author provides in this book — such as a letter in which Armstrong complains to Glaser about being treated “like a baby” — there’s a strong insinuation that the critics were right. Armstrong himself insisted that he was doing what he wanted to do, but he also complained from time  to time about exhaustion, and he lost more than one player from the All Stars because the grind was just too much.

Riccardi, who is a student of music and an authority on Armstrong, defends Armstrong’s repertoire; the subtitle of the book is The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Among the criticisms of Armstrong was that he played almost the same song set night after night, to which Armstrong replied that he played what the paying audience expected him to play. As for the indictment of Armstrong’ s wide grin and rolling eyes, it never occurred to me that those mannerisms were supposed to be a stereotype of a black man — if it had occurred to me, I would have been offended and would not have been at that show at Seton Hall. To me, Armstrong was just being himself. Still, his position on race, as Riccardi presents it in this book, was ambiguous at most. At times he would lose his temper and rant about the way black Americans were treated, but he was also capable of making a statement in which he adopted a shaky rationale based on a distinction between “lazy” black people and industrious ones like him. In the event, Armstrong had almost no black audience when he was recording his enormous pop hits, “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” and whether that was due to his play list or to his attitude toward his race remains a matter of conjecture.

You can watch and listen to Armstrong sing and play “Mack the Knife” by clicking HERE.