By Peter Royston
(Center Stage Magazine, Fall 2001)

Richard Rodgers was bored. Forced to bed by a reoccurring back problem, he picked up Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener's account of life for American soldiers and natives on the South Pacific islands during World War II. The director Joshua Logan had suggested it as a possibility for a new musical. After the monumental successes of Oklahoma!, Carousel and State Fair, Rodgers and his partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, had no new shows planned for 1948 and were looking for fresh material. They immediately saw the potential in Michener's stories, and South Pacific was born.

More than a business partnership, less than a marriage, the collaboration between lyricist and composer is the most mysterious in the theatre. Each looks for that explosive chemistry, that just-right give-and-take, that perfect collaborator. When the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II said, "Collaboration is the biggest word in the theatre," he could have been describing his own relationship with composer Richard Rodgers, easily the BIGGEST partnership in the history of the American musical.

Before working together, both men collaborated with others. A na´ve boy of only sixteen, Richard Rodgers was in awe of the older, more sophisticated Lorenz Hart when they first met in 1918, but something between them clicked. Over twenty-four years, Rodgers & Hart wrote twenty-nine shows, tinkering on the still-new musical theatre form with such works as A  Connecticut Yankee, On Your Toes, and Pal Joey.

Oscar Hammerstein II found his pre-Rodgers partnerships no less fruitful. Working with composers like Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, Hammerstein revitalized the operetta, but it was his collaboration with Jerome Kern on Show Boat in 1927 that really set the theatrical world on fire. Here was the foundation that Rodgers & Hammerstein would later build on. Show Boat was not a musical comedy, but true musical theatre that explored intense adult issues and began to combine song and story.

Although they had met previously, Rodgers & Hammerstein finally found each other as composer and lyricist in the early 1940s, when Rodgers was offered the chance to create a musical version of Lynn Rigg's play Green Grow the Lilacs. Hart cynically dismissed the sunny piece, and Rodgers saw the opportunity to finally work with Hammerstein. The resulting musical, later titled Oklahoma! literally redefined musical theatre. Musicals could no longer get away with flimsy story lines designed as hat racks for the latest popular songs. Now music had to be rooted in character and story. Rodgers wrote, "When a show works perfectly, it's because all the individual parts complement each other and fit together. No single element overshadows any other, " and Hammerstein said, "The music is the character captured in sound."

Their collaboration proved especially fertile as work began on South Pacific. As the music and book evolved, two Michener stories were interwoven: "Fo' Dolla'," a story of doomed love between Joe Cable, an American G.I. and Liat, a Polynesian girl, and "Our Heroine," about the American nurse Nellie Forbush, and her love for the French planter Emile de Becque. To lighten these serious stories, they added a third Michener tale, this one about the antics of Luther Billis, an easygoing con man. Finally, a fourth tale, about a daring military operation, was added to tie them all together.

Long unfairly derided for their sentimentality and "cock-eyed optimism," Rodgers & Hammerstein's works, especially South Pacific, are mature in their outlook and startlingly modern in their complexity. Not only do song and story blend seamlessly, but entire genres seem to shake hands and work together: elements of romance, tragedy, low-brow comedy, fantasy and gritty reality all fuse in the same show, sometimes in the same scene. In South Pacific, Joe confronts his own prejudice after rejecting Liat with the song "Carefully Taught": "You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made..." But this social commentary is all the more searing for being an integral part of the story, and not standing out as a lecture.

As Rodgers wrote, "It was perfectly in keeping with the character and situation that, once having lost his heart, he would express his feelings about the superficiality of race barriers. End of sermon."

South Pacific opened at Broadway's Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949 to rave reviews. Perhaps the critic for The New York World Telegram was describing the Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership as well as the show when he called South Pacific, "the finest kind of balance between story and song, hilarity and heartbreak."

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