by Katie Butler Johnson
What do you think of if you hear the words “South Pacific”?
I think of Rodgers’& Hammerstein’s musical and the day in 1950 I went to see it at New York’s Majestic Theater.
Growing up, I had a buddy named Joan. Her grandmother gifted her three tickets to “South Pacific” as a 10th birthday gift: a ticket for Grandmother; a ticket for Joan; and the last for a guest Joan could choose. She chose me.
Joan’s Grandmother put a lot of thought into that gift, carefully arranging each detail to delight and indulge us 10year-olds. She splurged on a black stretch limo to pick us up for the trip from Long Island into the NYC. We felt like princesses dressed in our party garb as we rode in the way, way, way back of that lumazine driven by a uniformed chauffeur ensconced way, way, way up front. We would peer out the windows and see others peering back at us, perhaps wondering who those seemingly privileged young girls might be.
“South Pacific” was my first Broadway show. The lead actors that day were Fort Worth’s Mary Martin and Italy’s Ezio Pinza. The performance was magical. After the performance, Joan’s Grandmother had the limo driver make a stop at Schrafft’s for ice cream before taking us home. I daydreamed about the show for days after.
I wondered if there would ever be “a stranger across a crowded room” on “some enchanted evening” for me some day. When and where would I meet my person? Years later there was that stranger for me, but it wasn’t across a crowded room on a warm tropical evening. It was across the chilly, windswept Notre Dame campus on a brisk November morn that I first laid eyes on my stranger, my future husband, walking toward me, engulfed in a wool tweed overcoat, smiling. (Just between you and me, I confess there might perhaps have been a time or two over our many years together that . . . .possibly . . . . .I might have briefly wanted to . . . .“WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUT OF MY HAIR!.”)
There was controversy over one of the songs in “South Pacific” long before the show ever premiered. Rodgers and Hammerstein were pressured to cut “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from the score. Some considered it too political and controversial. It alluded to relationships between races and ethnic groups. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein were adamant that it be included as the issue was integral to why they wanted to do the show in the first place. They held their ground and prevailed. (Interesting note: today that song is alluded to in the song “My Shot” from “Hamilton” and Barbra Streisand, Billy Porter and James Taylor have each recorded it for their albums.)
In March of 2006 I visited the actual South Pacific on a National Geographic trip. I stayed several days on the volcanic island Rapa Nui known as Easter Island where massive carved human figures with oversized heads called moai line the coastline. I also spent time in Samoa where the Polynesian people, covered with tattoos indicating their identity and status, performed their amazing fire dance for us. The people of both Islands were welcoming and eager to share their stories. The weather was beautiful both places. I’ll let you day- dream about what it would be like to be on a remote tropical Island and save more details about some other South Pacific Islands for another day.
After all, that other “South Pacific” tells us . . . . .
“You got to have a dream
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true”