There’s nothing like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to entertain — and to teach.
One of the duo’s most famous and groundbreaking shows opens next week at CenterPoint Legacy Theatre as the theater presents the sweeping “South Pacific.”
The musical, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” is director Jim Christian’s favorite musical by the famous songwriting team. Michener’s 1947 novel and the 1949 musical both were awarded Pulitzers in their respective categories. Christian, the director of musical theater studies at Weber State University, said he was eager to direct when he learned CenterPoint was staging the show.
“I just love the straightforward nature of the story,” Christian said. “I think that what it has to teach is astronomically huge.”
The show, set in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II, is famous for its lively numbers and soaring ballads — such as “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Happy Talk,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” But the musical is famous not only for its score, but also for its unflinching look at racism and prejudice.
One song in particular, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” was at the center of a firestorm when Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and stage and film director Joshua Logan were putting the show together, Christian said. The song is sung by U.S. Marine Lt. Joseph Cable, who falls in love with a Polynesian but refuses to marry her. Cable explains racism as something “not born in you! It happens after you’re born ...”
That song was criticized in 1940s America, Christian said
“Producers and all kinds of other people said, ‘Ew, take that sucker out of the show,’ ” according to Christian. “Rodger and Hammerstein and Logan all said, ‘Sorry, if that song goes, the show goes. We will just shut it right down.’ ”
Fortunately, the creative team prevailed and the song remained, Christian said. More than 60 years since its premiere on Broadway, the show continues to win over new fans in countless productions — including a 2008 Broadway revival, a national touring production that came through Utah earlier this year, and a production last summer at Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan.
“It’s an example of classic musical theater at its best, and it’s certainly a show that speaks to all generations and all audience members,” Christian said. “It’s the kind of show that every new generation needs to rediscover.”
Two young cast members who are discovering the joys of being in “South Pacific” for the first time are Bre Welch, who plays American nurse Nellie Forbush in the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday version at CenterPoint, and her brother-in-law Landon Welch, who is playing Lt. Cable in the same cast.
Bre Welch is graduating this week from Weber State University and most recently appeared as Kira/Clio in WSU’s production of “Xanadu.” Landon Welch attended Utah Valley University and is a behavioral specialist who works with special-education students at Legacy Preparatory Academy in North Salt Lake.
Nellie, a self-described “cockeyed optimist,” has some of the most upbeat numbers in musical theater history, including “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and the cross-dressing, bundle-of-fun “Honey Bun.”
“I feel like Nellie has so little inhibitions that she will just go up there and play a man. It’s just super fun,” Bre Welch said.
Nellie and Lt. Cable are at the heart of this story about young Americans serving their country in a foreign land. Both are idealistic and have the optimism and enthusiasm of youth, but they also have their inner demons. Both fall in love and in the process discover their own weaknesses and prejudices. One story has a happy ending; the other ends in tragedy.
Landon Welch jokes that he usually gets cast in the role that sings a song while the main characters are offstage making costume changes. This role is new for him in that he gets to “teach the lesson of the show” in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
Welch said he was practicing the song one day when his adopted sister overheard him and came into the room where he was practicing.
“She had never heard it and with these big eyes said, ‘I have darker skin and my eyes aren’t shaped like yours,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the whole point, and you’re beautiful and we love you, but back then people were taught to hate that,’ ” Landon Welch said.
Cable’s love interest in the story is the beautiful Liat, whose brash mother Bloody Mary is played by Farmington resident Neti Taumoepeau, who was born in Utah but whose parents immigrated from Tonga in the 1970s. The two casts include several Polynesian performers, adding to the authenticity of the show.
Taumoepeau describes her character as “kind of hard, with a softness behind her.” Bloody Mary only wants the best for her daughter, which she sees in Lt. Cable. But when Cable refuses to marry Liat, Bloody Mary gets very angry and has a meltdown.
“When she is confronted face to face with the racism, she pulls away and she gets really upset,” Taumoepeau said. “It’s that instinct to protect her daughter why she gets so upset when someone doesn’t accept her daughter. It’s something very new to her and she thinks they hate her daughter simply because she is different.”
Enter the Frenchman
In the story, Nellie falls for an older Frenchman by the name of Emile De Becque, who is living on the island where the American troops are stationed. De Becque is played in the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday production opposite Welch by Salt Lake City resident Jim Dale.
Over the course of the show, the two fall in love — setting the stage for the musical’s most famous tune, “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Dale said he enjoys singing the “big money song,” but jokes that the song is so famous that sometimes people make fun of it.
“They always hire an opera singer to canoodle their way through it,” Dale said. “But it is a beautiful song and I’m going to try not to do too much canoodling. Although I have done a lot of opera myself, I don’t want to make it too canoodling like an opera thing.”
Dale’s favorite number in the show is the more haunting “This Nearly Was Mine,” which he sings after Nellie discovers that Emile was married to a Polynesian woman and fathered two biracial children. Nellie freaks and flees, Dale said, leaving his character stunned, stupefied and left with nothing to live for.
However, Nellie realizes she is being a “nitwit” and returns to Emile’s plantation, hoping he will return from a dangerous military mission with Lt. Cable — setting up the show’s climax.
“What is so cool about playing Nellie is that she is a completely flawed character, she has major issues and it’s very relevant for the audience,” Bre Welch said. “She’s a racist, but she has the opportunity to kind of get a second chance and see the world a little bit differently. She works through love to find happiness and say, ‘You know what, I don’t care what my family says, I’m going to have to make these decisions myself about what makes me the most happy.’ ”
Dale added that the relevancy of “South Pacific” lives on, as people across the world continue to struggles with racial issues.
Although the show does have its serious overtones, Dale said, it is also lighthearted, romantic and fun — kind of like real life — which is what Rodgers and Hammerstein did best.
‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’
“You’ve got to be taught
“To hate and fear,
“You’ve got to be taught
“From year to year,
“It’s got to be drummed
“In your dear little ear
“You’ve got to be carefully taught.
“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 before it’s too late,
“Before you are six or seven or eight,
“To hate all the people your relatives hate,
“You’ve got to be carefully taught!”