Long before "Hamilton," there was "South Pacific," which opened on Broadway 71 years ago today. I've written about this musical before, but it seems appropriate to do so again this morning.
The musical unveiled on April 7, 1949, at New York City's Majestic Theatre was based on "Tales of the South Pacific," a collection of fictional stories by James Michener. The theatrical version was co-authored by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan.
Rodgers and Hammerstein had revolutionized the Broadway musical form with "Oklahoma!" six years earlier and with "South Pacific" they were taking a bold step into social commentary. Logan was brought in not because he was a veteran of the theater, but because he was a veteran of the U.S. Army who could help write the parts dealing with military life.
By 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein were expected to produce hits, but that hardly accounts for the enthusiastic reception accorded "South Pacific." It was first staged in New Haven, Conn., where the locals realized immediately what they had. "‘South Pacific' should make history," gushed the New Haven Register. In Boston, the show's next port of call, playwright George S. Kaufman quipped that it was so popular that the crowds standing in line at the Shubert Theatre "don't actually want anything -- they just want to push money under the doors."
The audience at the Broadway premiere on April 7, 1949, included the elite of New York's art world, so the play's backers rented the roof of the St. Regis Hotel for an after-party. They even ordered 200 copies of the early edition of the New York Times, so guests could read the review. Rodgers and Hammerstein usually eschewed that kind of thing. Why jinx yourself? But there was no danger this time. Famed Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson, who sat in his customary front-row seat that night, wrote a glowing review.
The real critics -- members of the audience -- had already voted with their feet. Or maybe I should say with their hands: The opening night performance took a long time to complete, as the crowd kept stopping the show with extended applause after each of the songs. Several of those numbers, including "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger Than Springtime," are popular torch songs to this day.
And why not? Those songs were brilliant in their composition, sung beautifully by a cast that included Mary Martin and opera star Ezio Pinza, and also carried enlightened social messages, the chief one being that love can thrive even in wartime -- and is more powerful than racism.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.