Jim Lovensheimer makes serious study of the American musical
by Jim Patterson
photo by John Russell
Where is it written that something fun must be frivolous?
Jim Lovensheimer, assistant professor of musicology, has loved American musicals since his childhood babysitter introduced him to “Some Enchanted Evening” and the rest of the South Pacific soundtrack.
But he sees much more in the classic musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and more than snappy numbers combined with love stories. He thinks we can learn a lot about ourselves as Americans by looking closely at the entertainment we choose.
“These are our myths,” Lovensheimer said. “This is us telling our own myths to ourselves, and we’re telling those myths in increasingly different and interesting ways.”
Lovensheimer’s new book South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten tackles the oft-performed show, recently revived on Broadway for the first time since 1955, to see what it tells us about ourselves, in particular issues of race. His research for the book included a page-by-page review of the uncataloged Rodgers and Hammerstein archives at the Library of Congress. He carefully followed the documentation of the duo’s creative process and established that South Pacific was intended as a serious artistic statement as well as entertainment.
“Oscar Hammerstein was the president of the NAACP for a long time,” Lovensheimer noted. “Rodgers and Hammerstein were attracted by the story in Michener’s book about two romances threatened by racial intolerance,” he said of James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning source material Tales of the South Pacific.
They were also enormously talented songwriters at the peak of their games in the late 1940s while working on South Pacific. Songs like “Bali Ha’i” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” have survived as standards of the Great American Songbook even as the details of the original story tended to fade to the background.
South Pacific tells the story of two romances on a Pacific Ocean island during World War II. One perishes because an American soldier can’t get past his prejudice against the locals, while the other is deeply threatened until Nellie Forbush of Little Rock, Ark., comes to terms with her lover having children of mixed ancestry.
The whole show pivots around a song that lasts just 90 seconds or so. There was pressure on Rodgers and Hammerstein to cut “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the show before it opened, and some critics singled it out for criticism even after the show was a huge hit.
From the song:
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 diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
“‘Treacle’ is a word sometimes used to criticize Hammerstein’s lyrics,” Lovensheimer said. “I’m sorry, but this is the man who wrote ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’; it is certainly not sticky sweet.”
Some found the lyrics embarrassing or too threatening.
“Some said the show would have been better off without that preachy song,” Lovensheimer said. “People in the business tried to talk them into cutting it.”
Claiming the short song was the heart of South Pacific, the authors refused.
“That was very brave and very nervy in 1949,” Lovensheimer said. “This is one year after President Truman started some very controversial civil rights legislation and well in advance of Brown v. Board of Education,” which outlawed segregation in public schools.
All the more impressive, Rodgers and Hammerstein were feeling pressure to produce a hit. Their last production, the experimental Allegro, had lost money, and they were producing South Pacific themselves and were the primary investors.
At the Library of Congress, Lovensheimer pieced together how Rodgers and Hammerstein “walked the tightrope” of keeping the show commercial while maintaining its message. Notes show that they opted to cut dialogue that illustrated Nellie Forbush’s racism too harshly, lest actress Mary Martin – the first to portray Forbush on stage – be embarrassed. Words like “colored” were cut.
But the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” remains to this day, as does a plot that leads one of the romantic couples to tragedy after a sailor rejects a native girl because of her race. The sailor, Joe Cable, sings “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” in a fit of self-loathing over his own racism.
“The show is about the irony of racism while we were fighting a war obstinately against racism,” Lovensheimer said. “That the 2008 revival coincided with a war with racial implications in Iraq and the election of the first black president in America brought new overtones of meaning to modern audiences.”
Lovensheimer, a former musical theater performer who still occasionally gets on stage, has seen other musicals transformed by current events. Once during a performance of Oklahoma (also a Rodgers and Hammerstein show), a speech about unity in the community brought some in the audience to tears.
“It was not a great production,” he remembers, “but it happened shortly after Sept. 11. You could have heard a pin drop during that speech. The context of the time emphasized something that was there in the show all along.”
Lovensheimer is also interested when producers radically change settings and other aspects of classic musicals. A new production of La Cage aux Folles is set in a seedy club rather than the swanky setting of the original. He thinks the Legally Blonde musical improves substantially on a mediocre film and is curious why.
“Sometimes a musical will subvert the intentions of the authors, and I think that’s OK,” he said. “I take all of this very seriously, and I’m curious why some things work and others do not.”
South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten is the first volume of the new Broadway Legacies Series from Oxford University Press. Lovensheimer tentatively plans to do another book just on Hammerstein for Oxford as part of his advocacy for musicals to be treated with the same seriousness as classical music or film.
“Why do people think because we write about the American musical theater that we are writing about trivial, lightweight, popular things?” he asked. “I’ve always taken show business seriously because entertaining people, making them laugh and maybe having some kind of a catharsis, is serious stuff. Many cultures have their own way of telling stories with singing and dancing and words.
“This is ours, and we need to pay attention.”