Some Enchanted Evening: The Impossible Story of South Pacific

By 1947, Joshua Logan was as much in demand as any director on Broadway, but even he lost a big fish from time to time. One of the most painful ones that got away was Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Logan was crushed, but not so permanently that he and his wife, Nedda, didn’t eagerly attend the play’s premiere on December 3, as guests of its scenic designer, their friend Jo Mielziner. Logan’s mood was elevated by the knowledge that in just a few weeks, a play of his own would be opening: Mister Roberts, a rollicking but poignant comedy about life aboard a Navy cargo ship stuck in a backwater of the Pacific in World War II. Logan had co-authored the script and was set to direct, with Leland Hayward producing. Henry Fonda had signed on to play the title character, and Broadway was already abuzz with anticipation.

So it was not surprising, when the Logans repaired to Sardi’s after the Streetcar opening, that Mielziner’s brother Kenneth MacKenna, a former actor and veteran story editor at MGM, mentioned a new novel that might provide some scenic color for Mister Roberts. That book was Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of 19 loosely linked short stories by James A. Michener, a Navy veteran now working as a textbook editor. Logan, who was headed with Hayward for a quick getaway to Miami Beach, picked up a copy to take with him and was immediately entranced by one of the stories, “Fo’ Dolla,” the tale of a passionate interracial romance between a Marine lieutenant from the Philadelphia Main Line and a young Tonkinese native. He resolved at once to try to buy the dramatic rights to the book. But the next morning, Logan recalled, Hayward sensed that something was up, and that afternoon, while Logan was napping, Hayward swiped the book and read it himself, exclaiming when Logan woke up, “Josh, we’re going to buy this son of a bitch!”

Whereupon Logan had an instant brainstorm: a musical adaptation by Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Of course,” Hayward replied, “but don’t you dare mention it to them. They’ll want the whole damn thing. They’d gobble us up for breakfast.” But Logan was nothing if not indiscreet, and a short time later, after returning to New York, he ran into Dick Rodgers at a cocktail party and could not resist blurting out a not-quite-true boast. “Don’t tell anyone I’ve told you this, but I own a story you might want to make a musical of.”

Poster for the original theatrical run of South Pacific
(Worldphotos/Alamy Stock Photo)

A few weeks later, at the Philadelphia tryout of Mister Roberts, Logan ran into Oscar Hammerstein and mentioned Tales of the South Pacific to him. Two days later, Oscar called back, just as excited, having read the book himself, and having also talked to Rodgers, who assured him, “Oh, I was crazy about it, too, but some son of a bitch I met at a cocktail party owns it so we haven’t got a chance.”

Logan was the SOB in question, of course, but he had not locked up the rights, and now Leland Hayward hit the roof: The would-be producers would have to share their pet project with the two most powerful men on Broadway, who insisted on 51 to 49 percent control.

Tales of the South Pacific was a neither-fish-nor-fowl creation, not a standard novel with a beginning, middle, and end, but more an accumulation of atmospheric character sketches. Oscar Hammerstein would somehow have to hammer it all into a coherent libretto that could hold an audience for two and a half hours. The way forward was not immediately obvious, but there was no shortage of color.

“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific,” Michener’s book begins, in an evocative passage that Oscar underlined in his own personal copy.

The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like and first thing you know I’m telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!

Indeed, it is just such a woman — a wily, betel-chewing entrepreneur and master of pidgin GI slang who was known as Bloody Mary — who features prominently in “Fo’ Dolla,” the longest story in the book. Making the acquaintance of handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable, she spirits him to the nearby island of Bali Ha’i, where the French planters have sequestered their daughters for the war, and where he promptly falls for Mary’s own lovely daughter, Liat. With Mary playing an uncomfortable combination of matchmaker and procurer, Cable is drawn again and again to the mystic island. But despite his deep love for the girl, he knows he can never marry her or take her home to his family in Philadelphia.

Michener summons up a gallery of other compelling characters.

There is Luther Billis, a tanned, tattooed Seabee from the Navy’s construction battalion who is obsessed with a ritual native boar’s tooth ceremonial on a neighboring island. There is Ensign Bill Harbison, a snappy, ambitious, married officer who takes a shine to a Navy nurse from Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, and tries to rape her.

And there is Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner, who falls in love with Forbush and asks her to marry him, in a story called “Our Heroine.” Nellie agrees, until she learns that de Becque has eight mixed-race daughters by four different mothers, two Javanese, one Tonkinese, and one Polynesian. But in the end, Nellie overcomes her fears and prejudices, returns to Emile, and joins him and his daughters in singing “Au Clair de la Lune.”

It was a lot for a librettist to absorb, and with his usual meticulous attention to detail and his strong eye for plot and character, Hammerstein went through Michener’s book story by story, underlining bits of dialogue, making red grease-pencil checkmarks in the margins. On a sheet of yellow legal paper, with page numbers from Michener’s book running down the left margin, he made notes of the characters’ names: Nellie, Harbison, and so on.

If this isn’t the damnedest show that’s ever been written, I’ll eat my hat,” Josh said when they were done.

The following month, Dick and Oscar went to Los Angeles to check up on one of their company’s most important properties: the national touring company of Annie Get Your Gun, featuring Mary Martin. A one-time dance instructor from Weatherford, Texas, Martin had first met Hammerstein in Hollywood in the 1930s. At an audition, she sang for him “a song you probably don’t know, ‘Indian Love Call.’” When she finished, Hammerstein told her, “Young lady, I think you have something. I would like to work with you on lines and phrasing, if you could come to my house every week.” Then he added, “Oh, and by the way, I know that song. I wrote it.”

Martin took Broadway by storm singing Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Leave It to Me in 1938. She performed the number’s litany of risqué double entendres about a kept woman and her older patron with the straightest of faces, dancing the accompanying striptease with the most innocent of miens. The result was a sensation.

Now as the partners sat by the pool at the Hotel Bel-Air, they fell to talking about the Michener book. From the beginning, the inter­racial romance of “Fo’ Dolla” had been envisioned as the central plotline of their show. But they were having second thoughts, concerned that the tale of Cable and Liat might come off as yet another twist on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. What about that other story, “Our Heroine,” with its appealing Frenchman and the young Navy nurse?

What happened next seems too improbable even to have been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter. That same day, out of the blue, Rodgers got a call from Edwin Lester, the West Coast’s leading musical theater impresario who was presenting the very touring company of Annie Get Your Gun that Dick and Oscar had come to see. Now, he told Rodgers, he had a big problem: He had signed Ezio Pinza, the beloved Metropolitan Opera basso, to a 12-week, $25,000 contract in anticipation of producing a musical called Mr. Ambassador. The project had collapsed, but Lester was still on the hook for his guarantee with Pinza, who at 56 had decided to retire from grand opera.

“Do you and Oscar have anything cooking that might be suitable?” Lester wanted to know.

Years later, Rodgers would recall, “The whole picture suddenly began to take shape before my eyes. … I hung up and ran back to Oscar, who saw exactly what I saw.” Ezio Pinza as Emile de Becque.

But what about Nellie Forbush? The perfect candidate was right in their own backyard: Mary Martin. But Martin was reluctant. For one thing, singing Irving Berlin’s raucous songs for months on the road had lowered her vocal range. “What on earth do you want?” she asked. “Two basses?” The Annie Get Your Gun tour was ending in San Francisco that summer, and Martin and her husband, Richard Halliday, would be driving home to Connecticut. The partners agreed to give her time to think.

Actors Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin drink out of glasses
The stars were aligned: Mary Martin (right) was exhausted after touring with Annie Get Your Gun, and nearly turned down South Pacific. Her co-star, opera singer Ezio Pinza (left), had been signed to another show, and only became available when that production collapsed. (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)

Meantime, Dick and Oscar set to work in earnest. Rodgers had promised Martin that she would not have to sing in competition with Pinza, so instead of a standard duet, he and Hammerstein created a pair of “Twin Soliloquies” in which the lead characters would explore their growing attraction in parallel melodies. As usual, Oscar went straight to the original source. In his copy of Tales of the South Pacific, he had underlined a passage and penciled “Song//” in the margin next to it: “‘I was looking at the cacaos,’ Nellie said in a sing-song voice. To herself she was saying, ‘I shall marry this man. This shall be my life from now on. This hillside shall be my home. And the afternoons he and I will sit here.’ Aloud, she continued, ‘They are beautiful, aren’t they?’” From this, Hammerstein fashioned a lyric of tentative inquiry in which both Nellie and Emile sing their private thoughts aloud.

By the time the Hallidays got back to Connecticut, Dick and Oscar had finished two more songs, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” in which Nellie sums up her sunny vision of the world, and “Some Enchanted Evening,” in which Emile declares a love for Nellie that is as intense and instantaneous as it is improbable. Martin and Halliday were summoned to the Rodgerses’ nearby country house to hear Josh Logan read the early dialogue, Dick play piano, and Oscar sing in his genial foghorn of a voice. It was a pleasant evening, and as the Hallidays headed home, Dick and Oscar asked for an answer within 72 hours. At 3:00 the next morning, Martin woke up Rodgers with a phone call: “Do we have to wait 72 hours to say ‘yes’?”

Working on the libretto with his usual skills of synthesis, Oscar sketched a detailed outline of the show. Picking and choosing characters and incidents from Michener’s stories, he wove together the lives of Nellie, Emile, Cable, and Liat into a single narrative. For comic relief, he seized on the character of Luther Billis from the story “Dry Rot” and asked Michener for some additional material on how a guy like that might operate. “I suggested that he would probably run a laundry of some kind,” Michener would recall. Hammerstein changed the number of Emile’s children from eight to two (a boy and a girl); he linked Cable and de Becque — when Nellie rejects Emile’s proposal of marriage, de Becque joins Cable on a dangerous mission. He flagged Operation Alligator, the pending assault on the Japanese-held islands, early in the action, allowing all the major characters to be caught up in its wake. In the end, Cable dies under enemy fire, but de Becque survives and returns to Nellie, who has overcome her biases and joins the Frenchman and his family as the curtain falls.

“If this isn’t the damnedest show that’s ever been written, I’ll eat my hat,” Josh said when they were done. And in fact, the show was shaping up with unusual excitement all around. One evening at the Logans’ apartment, Rodgers first played Nellie’s exuberant confession of love for Emile — “A Wonderful Guy” — for Mary Martin, sitting beside him at the piano, and she sang it with such growing enthusiasm that she fell off the bench at the end. “Never do it any other way,” Dick said.

The emerging show was also a true collaboration among all the artists involved, as evidenced by “Bali Ha’i,” Bloody Mary’s song about the alluring island to which Lieutenant Cable would be drawn. Oscar had written a lyric and presented it to Dick at a production meeting over lunch in Logan’s apartment one day. “I spent a minute or so studying the words, turned the paper over and scribbled some notes, then went into the next room where there was a piano, and played the song,” Rodgers would recall. “The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than five minutes.”

In fact, the first three notes of the song, on the syllables “Bali Ha’i” repeated with insistent rapidity, would become the first sound audiences heard at the beginning of the stirring overture, and a kind of leitmotif for the whole show.

Actor Juanita Hill as Bloody Mary on the set of South Pacific
Landmark performance: Juanita Hall played Bloody Mary in the original cast of South Pacific on Broadway. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress, for this role. (CarlVan Vechten/Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo)

Mary Martin herself came up with another idea that turned into a song. As she was showering one day, it occurred to her that she had never seen any actress wash her hair, really wash her hair, onstage. She ran stark naked to ask her husband what he thought. “Don’t you dare tell that to anyone,” he said. “Not a soul. If you do, they’ll go for it, and then you’ll have to do it onstage eight times a week.” But the next thing they knew, Josh Logan was on the phone and they promptly told him about the idea, swearing him not to pass it on to Dick and Oscar. “So, naturally,” Martin recalled, “we all told them both. They said I was balmy but if I was willing to do it they loved the idea.” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” became Nellie’s brief declaration of independence from Emile. (And because Martin could never get all the soap out of her hair onstage, she washed it again in her dressing room after every performance, and then again at home before the next day’s show, so she calculated that she wound up washing it not just eight times a week but more than 20 times — for three and a half years in New York and London.)

For Oscar, part of the strong appeal of Michener’s book was its frank treatment of racial prejudice. Segregation was still a fact of life not only in the Jim Crow South but in much of the urban North as well. It had only been in 1947 that Jackie Robinson had broken big league baseball’s color line. In the draft of the South Pacific script that Logan and Hammerstein completed in time for the first cast rehearsal, after Nellie has broken off her relationship with Emile in horror at his mixed-race children and Cable finds himself unable to marry Liat, despite his love for her, the young Americans share their ­feelings.

“Damn it to hell!” Cable shouts to Nellie. “What’s the difference if her hair is blonde and curly or black and straight? If I want her to be my wife, why can’t I have her?”

“You can!” Nellie replies. “It’s just that — people — I mean they say it never works. Don’t they?”

“They do,” Cable answers in disgust. “And then everybody does their damnedest to prove it. A hell of a chance Liat and I would have in one of those little gray stone and timber houses on the Main Line. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cable entertained, last Tuesday, with a housewarming. Nobody came!’”

This dialogue would be dropped before the first performance. But not the song that followed, which Cable sings in response to Nellie’s assertion that her prejudice is “something that is born in me!”

The New York opening was set for Thursday, April 7, 1949. Oscar and Dick were confident enough of the critics’ verdict that they abandoned theatrical superstition and booked their own opening-night party, an elegant supper dance at the St. Regis Roof, and ordered a couple hundred copies of the New York Times to pass out to their guests. They had not miscalculated: The critics offered raves all around. Brooks Atkinson in the Times called the play “a magnificent musical drama,” Richard Watts Jr. of the Post found the show “an utterly captivating work of theatrical art,” and Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune pronounced it “a show of rare enchantment.”

Tickets immediately became all but unobtainable, and scalping was rife. Even more than Oklahoma!, South Pacific became a huge cultural and social phenomenon. Virtually every American adult had some palpable connection to World War II, which meant that they also had a natural connection to the show. Souvenir shops sold fake ticket stubs, so that people who were unable to get in could display them on their coffee tables, as if to suggest they had seen the show.

The producers also licensed a wide range of consumer products with a South Pacific theme, from a “Knucklehead Nellie” doll to a line of sheets, towels, pillowcases, and bathrobes; silk ties and clothing; toiletries; hairbrushes; compacts and cigarette cases; and a home hair permanent formula. Never before had a Broadway play undertaken such merchandising for any purpose other than free publicity. Now South Pacific’s marketing licenses would soon bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues to the manufacturers — and tens of thousands in royalties to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

In the spring of 1950, the show swept every major category at the fourth annual Tony Awards, and on May 1 came the crowning honor: South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

South Pacific ran for 1,925 performances on Broadway. Ezio Pinza left the cast for Hollywood when his contract was up in June 1950, but Martin stayed on another year before leaving to head up the London company. She was replaced by Martha Wright, who was herself later briefly replaced by a lissome blonde newcomer from Iowa named Cloris Leachman. Myron McCormick was the only principal from the original cast to stay with the show till the end. By the time of his 1,000th performance as Luther Billis, he had lived through three sets of actors playing the de Becque children; witnessed 10 marriages in the cast, and was on his third pair of shoes. He still had his original coconut bra, but the rope straps had been patched. On the closing night, January 16, 1954, he led the cast in singing “Auld Lang Syne” with tears in his eyes. By design, the curtain never fell, and the audience, hoping for one last promise of paradise, lingered on for half an hour before finally drifting out into the night.

This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image credit: Pictorial Press LTD/Alamy Stock Photo