Why 'South Pacific' has got to be carefully played

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South Pacific rehearsal.
Bloody Mary (Christine Toy Johnson) tries to sell a grass skirt to two SeaBees, played by Mathias Anderson, left, and Wesley Mouri, during a rehearsal of "South Pacific."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Rogers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" is best known nowadays for such songs as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair."

Yet when the musical first came out in 1949, it was hugely controversial for another of its songs — and for the show's depiction of interracial love.

As the Guthrie Theater prepares to begin previews later this week, Artistic Director Joe Haj is reframing "South Pacific" for present-day sensibilities. Not that there's much anyone can do about lyrics like, "What ain't we got? We ain't got dames!"

This is Haj's first show done from scratch since he became artistic director. It's a big production, and he has to make sure it works on the theater's famed thrust stage, with the audience on three sides.

"The difference between proscenium and the thrust is the difference between chess and 3-D chess," he said. "Because the play somebody here is watching is very different from the play someone there is watching."

Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj
"South Pacific" is Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj's first production directed from scratch at the theater. He's trying to bring through the musical's anti-racist message while countering character depictions from the time it was first produced which seem stereotypical now.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Haj is also working hard with the "South Pacific" cast and crew to honor the show's central message. Rogers and Hammerstein created the show from a James Michener novel based on his experiences as a U.S. Navy officer in World War II.

The show was a huge Broadway hit when it debuted in 1949, but then it ran into problems.

"When they put together the national tour of it, there were states that attempted to pass legislation to ban its performance," Haj said. "Georgia, for example, attempted to ban any entertainment that had a philosophy inspired by Moscow."

The musical's depiction of interracial romances ran contrary to the norms of a country where many communities practiced segregation. And the song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" pulled no punches about the spread of racism:

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.

Many communities tried to stipulate that the song be removed in their town, but Rogers and Hammerstein insisted that if the song wasn't sung, then the show wouldn't play, Haj recounted. "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

It's been almost 70 years since "South Pacific" was first performed, and the world is a different place. The show's message is still pertinent, but the way certain characters were presented back then used stereotypes no longer accepted.

Bloody Mary is an Islander who makes her living selling souvenirs to the U.S. sailors, including shrunken heads.

"What's that?" one new arrival asks as Mary holds out her wares.

Actor Christine Toy Johnson plays Bloody Mary.
While the role of Bloody Mary has been played as almost a stereotype of in the past, Christine Toy Johnson says it's important to her and to the cast to humanize the character, and show her as someone working hard for the future of her family.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Is head," she replies, holding it higher. "Fifty dollar!"

"What's it made out of?" he asks.

"Made out of head!" she says, waving it in his face and causing him to jump out the way.

Actor Christine Toy Johnson plays Bloody Mary. The role comes with baggage, she said.

"I've seen caricatures, where perhaps her accent is the butt of the joke," she said.

In some productions, the character is played as only interested in making money, or in marrying off her daughter. Johnson said the cast spent a lot of time discussing the character and "how to humanize her, without taking away from the beautiful text."

But Haj and the cast also wanted to make the show a realistic portrayal of the wartime 1940s. Erin Mackey plays the hair-washing Ensign Nellie Forbush, a role she's played in two previous productions. Doing "South Pacific" in 2016 takes careful balance, she said.

"It can be very tempting to lay into the messages that it still has that are relevant," she said. "But it's more powerful when you just let it be, and let other people discover it on their own. Because it's all there."

All that, she said, and "South Pacific" has those great romances and incredible songs, besides.