Saturday, May 17, 2008

South Pacific And The Mythical American Innocence

On Thursday night, Mary-Jo and I saw the wonderful revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center starring Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot. This was an event we've been looking forward to for decades. Like many people of our generation, we grew up listening to our parents' LPs of the original Broadway cast of this show (Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, of course), and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with every fresh revival of Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma or A Chorus Line, Mary-Jo and I would ask one another, "When is someone finally going to do South Pacific?" Now someone has, and it is great--a marvelous cast, crisp staging, a full orchestra, even a restored script with a song and a number of lines of dialogue trimmed from the original production.

As it happens, today's Times contains an article about Kelli O'Hara, which (of course) praises her talent, voice, and fresh-faced appeal. It also discusses the whole concept of "the ingenue," which has been gradually disappearing from the stage in recent years:
The guile-free young woman in search of love--and almost always finding it--was once a staple of musical theater, when the standard plot of a Broadway show involved at least one happy ending for a boy and girl, and possibly several. But she has virtually become an absent archetype at the theater in recent years, preserved only in pastiche period musicals in which the character is usually dressed in a new frock fringed with irony. (In the currently running "Grease" and "Cry-Baby," for instance, the good girl seduces the audience's affections by going happily over to the dark side.) . . .

It's not hard to see why [the ingenue has disappeared]. Ingenuousness is almost as disreputable as its opposite today, possibly more so. The new-model female archetype in popular culture is a sexual and financial calculator almost before she has graduated from junior high school. Think of the lusty, upper-crusty schoolgirls in "Gossip Girl," or the preening soap-operators of "The Hills." Elle Woods, the ambitious overachiever in "Legally Blonde," could not really be described as wholesome. Nor could either the green or the blond witch in "Wicked," the hugely popular musical that starred Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel as revisionist versions of the good and bad witches of the Oz books. (Tellingly, the ingenuesque role in that story, little Dorothy from Kansas, is tossed out entirely.)
(Last weekend, Mary-Jo and I watched the movie version of Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as singing-and-dancing murderers and cannibals. Now there's a contrast with the sunny mood of the traditional American musical.)

Here is the place where one would normally insert a lament about America's "lost innocence" and a reference to whatever historical events one might like to blame: the sixties, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, 9/11. But the truth is that "innocence" is always fragile and under siege, in every time and place. Even in South Pacific itself, nurse Nellie Forbush (O'Hara's character) describes her own innocence in terms that are half-apologetic, half-defiant. Her exuberant anthem, "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy," begins:

I expect every one of my crowd to make fun of my proud protestations of faith in romance . . .

And having fallen in love, she describes herself as "No more a smart little girl with no heart." The implication is clear--in Nellie's crowd, cynicism, not innocence, is the norm.

It's not all that surprising, really. Watching the young choristers in their Navy fatigues and crisp nurses' uniforms dancing and singing around the tropical island setting of the show, it's easy to wax nostalgic about the youthful innocence of America in the flush of its post-war triumph. But let's think about the actual social context of South Pacific.

It's a show about men and women fighting in World War Two--people who have seen and in some cases participated in unspeakable brutality and mayhem. The show was based on the wartime writings of James Michener, then an unknown 40-year-old ex-teacher who'd served in the South Pacific himself, and Broadway audiences when the show debuted in 1949 were filled with people who'd fought the war themselves--and knew plenty of friends who'd never made it back.

The play opened as the Cold War was beginning, and its cultural backdrop included not only the the liberation of the death camps in Europe, the Nuremburg trials, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And during the summer of '48, as Rodgers and Hammerstein were working on their score--including the bitter satire of racism, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught"--the Dixiecrats were walking out of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, outraged over the party's adoption of a plank supporting civil rights for "negroes."

So while it is easy to think of 1949 as a time of carefree American innocence--a time before Americans had become acquainted with evil, either in others or in themselves--there never was such a time, of course.

But that doesn't mean the idea of the ingenue--"the guile-free young woman in search of love"--is meaningless. It just sets her in her true context, which is a world of violence, corruption, hatred, and sin. In other words, the real world.

If the ingenue is truly young, inexperienced, and naive, she may be unaware of these sad truths, as when, in The Tempest, Miranda catches her first glimpse of a handsome young man and, wide-eyed, proclaims, "O brave new world / That hath such people in it!" (To which her father quietly comments, "Tis new to thee.")

But Nellie Forbush is in a different category. She knows she doesn't live in a "brave new world." She is six thousand miles from home because she is serving in a global war, and she knows that the "wonderful guy" she loves has killed a man and fathered two mixed-race children (and as a nice girl from Little Rock it's not clear which of these two past exploits she finds more distressing). The story of South Pacific is about how she decides to make a life with Emile de Becque (and his children) despite it all.

That, if anything, is the real meaning of "innocence"--the decision to love in the face of all the evidence of love's futility, failure, and heartbreak. The quiet recognition of this reality is one of the things that makes South Pacific a grown-up work of art and the greatest American musical.

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