Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
As long as Jim Lovensheimer's new book, South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten, focuses on the creation of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, it's generally fascinating. When the book "explores what South Pacific reveals about its theatrical, political, and cultural contexts" (to use Lovensheimer's words), the rewards are still present if somewhat intermittent. Although the book is imperfect and the writing occasionally a little dull and dry, it does contain a tremendous amount of value.
For those who've never read the musical's source material, James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, Lovensheimer does a consistently interesting job of summarizing the book, focusing primarily on the two chapters ("Our Heroine" and "Fo' Dolla'") that provided the show's main plotlines, but also giving the reader some idea of the rest of the book and of how characters, plot devices and themes from other chapters were utilized by the musical's authors. For example, you learn in detail about two important characters in MichenerBill Harbison and Nellie's friend Dinahwho had prominent supporting roles in early drafts of the musical but ended up as minor roles.
In fact, the book is at its most fascinating when Lovensheimer discusses those early drafts, saving you a trip to the Library of Congress (where they can be found in the Hammerstein collection). In describing the process of gradual revision on the way to the final version of the script, Lovensheimer does a superb job of exploring the balance struck by Hammerstein, Rodgers and co-author Josh Logan in creating a work that would challenge the audience who attended Broadway musicals without alienating them. We even learn about changes made after the show opened, showing the authors' perfectionism in still trying to improve a show that was already the biggest hit in years.
Indeed, he spends some time countering the somewhat reductive point of view on the show expounded by Andrea Most in her book Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical. (The Talkin' Broadway review of that book can be found here.) He's particularly effective at examining the ways in which Nellie changes Emile just as much as Emile changes Nellie.
The best parts of these later sections are often insightful in exploring undercurrents to which the creators didn't give direct voice and which they may not have consciously intended. That's not to say that you'll find everything here convincing, but I don't think you'll think you'll question Lovensheimer's intelligence and his willingness to look beneath the surface.
Still, sometimes even when Lovensheimer makes a good point, it almost seems that he misses the larger point. For instance, he writes of "Bali Ha'i" that it "can be read either as a mystical moment in which Mary and the island 'speak' to Cable or as a manipulative con job." He seems to exclude the possibility that it can be both, or (to speak more precisely) that Mary intuitively sees that Cable subconsciously longs for something more than just a materialistic existence. This is why she feels that he'd be a good match for her daughter. The song is both her way of trying to awaken these feelings in him and of getting him to the island where he can meet her daughter. Thus there is nothing precisely mystical about it (in the sense of the island itself "speaking" to Cable through Mary), but it also isn't a con job. It's an expression of something that Mary truly believes about people and in particular about Cable: that he is in need of that "other island." Of course, she's also trying to sell him something, but it's something that she believes will bring happiness to Cable, to Mary's daughter, and to herself. What makes the song so great in the context of the show is that it functions on all these levels simultaneously, and Lovensheimer misses that a bit.
Also, I found it a bit surprising that Lovensheimer never addresses Emile's readiness to give up his life when he thinks he's lost Nellie, seemingly giving no thought to his children, or the way in which he finally informs Nellie of their existence.
There are some factual errors (for instance, when Lovensheimer writes that the only version of Babes in Arms available for production is the 1959 revision), but there are relatively few in comparison with what can be found in many other theatre books of recent years. Most of the errors are rather minor. One that strikes me as relatively important is his statement that Emile's children are legitimate in the musical, as opposed to the situation in the novel, where his children are all illegitimate. Unless I'm missing something, it's never stated in the musical that Emile married the mother of his children. Instead, it's implied that he didn't. Captain Brackett says that Emile "lived with a Polynesian woman for five years," rather than saying he married her or describing her as his wife.
Although I'm not a musician and I occasionally find musical analysis a bit confusing, I'm always interested in reading such analysis. Some of what Lovensheimer writes in this area is quite illuminating, but from my admittedly limited understanding, I did wonder if he was overstating things a bit in describing certain musical connections among the characters. Also, I was surprised to find him crediting Rodgers with some musical decisions that may well have originated with others.
Despite a couple of other fairly minor flaws, I'm very glad to have read this book. If excellent observations and analyses alternate with somewhat pedestrian ones, and if Lovensheimer occasionally shortchanges the depth and richness of the show's writing, South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten is unquestionably a major addition to the literature on this particular show, on Rodgers and Hammerstein, and on the American musical in general.
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