In 1949, “South Pacific” came to Broadway, detailing a time of love, war, hate and prejudice.
Seventy years later, “South Pacific” is coming to The Villages during a time of love, war, hate and prejudice.
“This is a very heavy show; and in 2019, those same issues still swirl around us,” said Dave Saxe. He plays Luther Billis in The Villages Musical Theater production at the Savannah Center on March 22-24.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” remains timeless and universal. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical was based on a novel by James A. Michener. Joshua Logan wrote the book for the musical and also directed it on Broadway and in a 1958 movie.
“South Pacific” also is a vital part of The Villages Musical Theater’s history. It was the first musical presented by the local group in 2002. That production was directed by Carol Greenfield.
The current “South Pacific” musical is directed by Sandie Hawthorne. It features more than 40 performers and an orchestra directed by Jean Butler.
The cast has new VMT members in the lead roles. Laura “Dellie” Saxe – Dave’s wife – plays Nellie Forbush and Richard Barth is Emile de Becque. Dave Newell is Lt. Joe Cable, with Brynn Neal as Bloody Mary and Yuri Sohn as her daughter, Liat.
“South Pacific’ never gets old,” Hawthorne said. “That musical and its themes of racism, love and war are still relevant. People still love the story and they love the music.”
Dellie Saxe was a teenage Nellie Forbush in a high school version of the musical in Chicago when she met Mary Martin, who originated Nellie on Broadway in 1949.
“Meeting Mary Martin was incredible,” Saxe said. “She told me that playing Nellie in ‘South Pacific’ was the happiest time in her life.”
And what advice did Mary Martin give her?
“She said, ‘Just enjoy being Nellie,” Saxe said. And she is doing just that.
“Nellie is a character of great joy, and she finds someone she loves,” Saxe said. But Forbush must also deal with an emotional dilemma.
The man she loves – Emile de Becque – has two, mixed-race children from a previous marriage. She turns down his marriage proposal, and he then volunteers for a dangerous mission to help the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II.
Things quickly change for de Becque and Forbush.
“Nellie has to reconcile what really matters in her life,” Saxe said. “Ultimately, she goes for love. She is really about following your heart and being true to yourself.”
There is another love story in “South Pacific.” Cable has a girl back home but falls for Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat, a Polynesian girl.
Once again, prejudice becomes an issue and one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most compelling songs, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” delves into a personal history of bigotry, with lyrics: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a different shade.”
The song hit home with Dave Newell, who plays Cable.
“When Cable sings that song, he comes to realize who he is and what he has become,” Newell said. “He’s a young man far away from home and he falls in love with a lovely young woman who is different, and he has problems dealing with it.
“You have to give Rodgers and Hammerstein and the writers so much credit. They are tackling racism and mixed-race relationships at a time when no one wanted to talk about those issues.”
There is humor, dancing and lively music in “South Pacific.” The song list includes “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like A Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” and “Younger Than Springtime.”
“Luther Billis provides comic relief,” Dave Saxe said. “There’s nothing funny about World War II but Billis is quite a character, always trying to get away with something.”
It’s all part of the enduring appeal of “South Pacific.”
“The writing is brilliant and the songs are wonderful,” Dave Saxe said. “That’s why we are still doing this musical 70 years later.”
Tony Violanti is an award-winning journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.