South Pacific on Tour in San Francisco: Racism is Carefully Taught

The wonderful Broadway revival “South Pacific“, directed by the brilliant Bartlett Sher, is on tour right now in San Francisco. Written in 1949 by Rodgers and Hammerstein, most people remember this musical as a lovely romance during World War II with memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening“, “There’s Nothing like a Dame” and “Wonderful Guy”.

The setting of this musical is in the islands of the South Pacific, where the Americans are stationed during wartime to protect their allies from the “Japs”. This story of war and prejudice holds such relevance today, which I found refreshing.

One of the main love stories in the musical is between Lt. Joe Cable, the American military man played by Anderson Davis, who falls in love with Liat, a Tonkinese native girl, portrayed by Sumie Maeda. Fighting racial prejudices he grew up with, he is conflicted between his love for Liat while realizing he can never really take her home to meet Mom and Dad in Philadelphia. He sings a compelling song, “You’ve got be carefully taught,” about racism. Joe Cable starts the song by saying “[Racism] isn’t born in you, it happens after you’re born!”:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to Year
It’s got to be drummed
in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
To be Afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

In the original production 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein were continually advised to take this song out of the show, claiming as the song was too controversial for a show. Against pressure, the song remained. During a touring production in 1953 in Atlanta, South Pacific created a frenzy among local legislators, as they introduced a state bill banning entertainment that supports “philosophy inspired by Moscow.” During this time, Sen. David C. Jones of Georgia stated that this song justified interracial marriage, which was an implicit threat to the American way of life.

Pretty heavy stuff for a retro Broadway musical, but I highly recommend this show, with its humanity and optimism — but it makes me wonder, have we come that much further in racial relations than this 1949 musical, a show created ahead of its time? I can only hope!

PS: For those Glee fans out there; Matt Morrison (Will Schuester) played the Lt. Joe Cable in the Broadway production of South Pacific in 2008, here is a video of him singing “Younger than Springtime,” which his character sings to Liat in the show.

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About Jen

I’m a Korean-American living in the bay area, I studied public health and social work in grad school, and I have an obsession for anything theater related, especially ballet and Broadway musicals. I just spent three years in NYC so I am still adjusting to normal winter weather and having a car, and most of the time, I am busy funding my passion for theater with a full-time job in healthcare public relations. On any given day, you can find me watching Project Runway, shopping, doing yoga, skipping to the theater, or looking for the perfect cocktail.
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