South Pacific is a strong antiracist musical wrapped in delicious show tunes

Don’t underestimate the sophistication and political savoir-faire of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical

“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.”

This was written in late 1940s America. It’s a world away from us, in time and place, and full of joyous show tunes to boot, but Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is more in tune with contemporary sensibilities than you might imagine from its tropical island image.

First performed on Broadway in 1949, the critically acclaimed Chichester Festival Theatre production of the musical, which comes to Dublin’s Bord Gáis Theatre in September, has a surprisingly bracing antiracism theme for a postwar American script. But then, Oscar Hammerstein had form, having first explored racial prejudice in 1927′s Show Boat. Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein set out to write a musical (book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan) based on James A Michener’s Pulitzer-winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, which would be both financially successful and strongly anti-racist. They succeeded: it was a rapid hit, and they were unapologetic about its racial message, withstanding pressure to tone it down, especially in the US south. The film followed in 1958, plus revivals and tours, TV adaptation and another film in 2002.

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught is sung by character Lieutenant Cable, who says racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born”, then sings: “You’ve got to be taught, to be afraid/ Of people whose eyes are oddly made/ And people whose skin is a different shade/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.”


The song has longevity (it’s on James Taylor’s 2020 album American Standard) and is just one of a bucket load of fabulous numbers in South Pacific: Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like a Dame, Happy Talk, Younger Than Springtime, I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.

“That’s the genius of it, because they sort of lull you into this false sense of security,” says Julian Ovenden, who plays Emile, a French plantation owner in the South Pacific, with a beautiful tenor voice. “They give you these amazing tunes. Beautiful lyrics. Very warm characters. Then they hit you with unpleasantness. And that’s life. We all have that within us. We all have sweetness and we have sour things. It’s a brilliant dynamic with which to enlighten the human condition. What do you do with a character who beguiles you and charms you, and then halfway through the show you discover is a racist? It’s interesting to know how the audience navigates that. It’s complicated. It’s not straightforward, but it’s satisfying.”

Ovenden had just vroomed into Sadler’s Wells theatre on his “midlife crisis motorbike”, an Italian Moto Guzzi, and was talking before going on stage during the London season, in advance of coming to Dublin. The story involves Nellie (Gina Beck), a US officer nurse from Arkansas stationed on a South Pacific island during the second World War, who falls for middle-aged Emile but is horrified to discover he has mixed-race children. The subplot romance involves Lt Cable and young Tonkinese woman Liat, and his fears of the social consequences of marriage. The background includes US troop life, a local trader Bloody Mary, dangerous espionage and the war against the Japanese. The gorgeous production with a cast of 30-plus and a full orchestra makes the most of the great numbers and dance spectacles, but also faces the hard themes: race, gender roles, age gaps, a society built on colonial exploitation and the troubling role of foreign soldiers in an economically deprived place.

Rodgers and Hammerstein “were brilliant at exposing the dark underbelly of America”, says Ovenden. “What they did was quite revolutionary and ahead of its time, considering it was written in 1949. It was a very powerful exposé of America’s view of the rest of the world and I think it was uncomfortable for an American audience. Hence, in the film the racial theme is softened somewhat, diluted. The love story is much more prominent. What we’ve tried to do in this production is make it stand front and centre, and embrace it. I think the very fact that we’re still dealing with it today, one could argue that nothing has changed. The piece was written 14 years before Rosa Parks, which is kind of extraordinary. When we did it in Chichester last year, the opening was the night after the European Cup final where there was racist abuse aimed at black English players. It feels so contemporary still, sadly. The way we talk about race now and how we are all examining our own behaviour. We all have to look at ourselves, even as parents, as teachers or whatever, and how we behave towards other people.”

The other aspect of racism in the musical “which is still troubling and why this piece has a kind of chequered past and still is unpalatable to a lot of audiences, is the treatment of the indigenous characters, Bloody Mary and Liat. In the original story, they are perhaps confined to two-dimensional racial stereotype. We’ve tried to give them three dimensions, give them agency, so they’re not token characters.” They’ve done this through dance, new song arrangements and adding a prologue “to expand their characters and make them human beings rather than mouthpieces”.

The character of Liat (in love with Lt Cable) is “almost mute and she sort of gets pimped out by her mother, Bloody Mary. I think what Dan [Evans, director] and Ann [Yee, choreographer] and the team tried to do was make that story more believable, more psychologically understandable and acceptable. One of the great things about this, and it is a masterpiece I think, is that it is able to be modulated to a modern audience, and still retain its inherent message and character.”

On stage, the production is explicit regarding race. There is a moment, still shocking, when she meets his children first and is unable to utter the word “Polynesian”. The romance bit — though it’s the focus of the poster — is actually harder to fathom. Emile sings about “one enchanted evening”, and Nellie wants to “wash that man right outa my hair” but is still “in love with a wonderful guy”, but the lovers clearly have nothing in common (he “likes those symphony records and reads Proust” and she “likes Dinah Shore and doesn’t read anything at all”); plus he doesn’t even bother to tell her he has children (of any race) before proposing.

He’s a bit familiar, Ovenden, isn’t he? He’s quite the high-achieving all-rounder. A musical star of Broadway and the West End as well as straight theatre, he does TV and film, and has a strong recording career (he’s performed with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the NCH). Inspired by past generations who cut their teeth in the versatility of repertory, “I tried, certainly when I was younger, to give myself as many different experiences as possible. Why wouldn’t you want to taste everything on the menu, rather than just the same old thing? People naturally want to confine you to a certain discipline. It’s quite a reductive business in that way. I think acting has become much more about who you are, rather than what you’re capable of expressing.”

He’s been in The Crown (Robert Kennedy with a Ha-vad drawl rather than a plummy Brit), was William de Nogaret in Knightfall, and libertine artist Henry Granville in Bridgerton. Years ago he was in a dishy Coke ad. But he’s likely best known as Charles Blake in Downton Abbey — the suitor Lady Mary didn’t marry. Downton was good for him, “because it’s a lovely show”, and also because “the way television and film work is that your currency is visibility, and popularity I suppose. The more visible you are, the more work you get, irrespective of if you’re any good, sometimes. It was great to be involved.” Even if he didn’t get the girl.

South Pacific is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from September 13th to September 17th.

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times