South Pacific was the one that needed to be a hit. Oklahoma! and Carousel established the team of Rodgers & Hammerstein as a force to reckon with. But then came Allegro, the well-intentioned and wildly experimental third show—and it was a disappointment. Were the great innovators finished? Would Rodgers & Hammerstein end up being “two hit wonders?”
Not a chance. These two men were too committed to the musical theater to give up, so they needed the next one to establish that they were here to stay. So they both took big risks and loaded the dice—for the first, by focusing on a contemporary story and taking on a bona fide collaborator in Joshua Logan, and second by writing for a star: Mary Martin.
It worked. When South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre April 7, 1949, it became an even bigger hit than the previous successes, taking home 10 Tony Awards (including best musical) and the Pulitzer Prize for drama and running for 1,925 performances—effectively telling the world that Rodgers & Hammerstein were not going anywhere. They were in for the long haul.
If I may get personal here—today is the 70th anniversary of its Broadway opening, and 20 years ago, on its 50th anniversary, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization gathered members of the original company and created a few celebratory days of events. Many of those people who gathered then are no longer with us, and those are days that I will remember forever.
Two standouts: the actual day was a Wednesday, so the then-current company of The Phantom of the Opera welcomed the original cast members out on the stage following the matinee, with a red rose handed by each Phantom cast member to each of the South Pacific veterans. The sound department snuck the original cast album in the system as play-out music, so one again the voices of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza filled their theater.
Then we threw together an event with Symphony Space which included songs sung by contemporary singers—Liz Callaway, David Campbell, and George Hearn—and reminiscences from selected members of the original cast. One strong memory: Betta St. John, who had played Liat, was sitting closest to me, and when David Campbell sang “Younger Than Springtime,” I watched a tear roll down her cheek. I so wanted to turn to my co-host, Symphony Space leader Isaiah Sheffer, and point it out. But I didn’t, because that would have called too much attention to the moment. I also knew that Betta had married her Lt. Cable from the London production.
Of course in the intervening years Andre Bishop, Bartlett Sher and their collaborators created the magnificent production at Lincoln Center Theater that simply re-invented the show for our modern times. So it lives on.
So happy 71st, South Pacific. You are aging very well.