Fifty years of musical memories

Musicals such as 'South Pacific' marked an era.

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    Sing out: Loretta Ables Sayre (center) and company perform a scene from 'South Pacific' at Lincoln Center Theater in New York.
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J. Alfred Prufrock, the introspective stand-in for poet T.S. Eliot, measured out his life with coffee spoons, but I have had another way of marking the passage of time. Ever since I attended my first musical, "Oklahoma," at the age of 7, I have marked the years by memories from the shows that remain fresh in my mind's eye.

And these images trigger the melodies and words of the songs. At a time when the latest Broadway shows set the standard for pop music the country over, the hit parade of my teenage era was fueled by the Broadway composers and lyricists. We heard the songs on the radio and bought the boxlike albums of 78 r.p.m. records to learn the words of the songs by heart.

I grew up in Chicago during the 1940s and '50s, when my hometown was an obligatory stop for a succession of hit musicals on tour that were often still running on Broadway. My mother bought back-row orchestra seats for "Oklahoma" to allow my friend, Janie, and me to stand throughout the performance and not bother anyone behind us. Even now I can close my eyes and see the golden halo over the cornfields as Curley came courting Laurie.

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By the time I was taken to "South Pacific," I was just starting high school. We had a family tradition by then – my mom, dad, brother, and I – of attending each musical together, followed by waffles and hot chocolate at Henrici's, a restaurant in the Loop that's now closed.

I remember clutching my program as we walked through the darkness of the downtown streets toward the steamed-up windows of the restaurant, and the pride I felt wearing my good coat. If it was bitterly cold, I had to wear leggings under my dress despite my protests.

So it was with "South Pacific," another of the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II wonders. Based on James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," the musical opened in New York in April 1949, barely four years after World War II had ended. The first national tour went out a year later. My parents bought tickets for the family when the production opened at the Majestic Theater.

No doubt everyone in the audiences had known a soldier, sailor, or marine who had served on the islands of the Pacific. The war was so close to the shared national experience that members of the original cast of "South Pacific" could wear their own Army and Navy uniforms to rehearsals. Although my knowledge was more limited, our family had lost my cousin, a pilot who went down with his plane.

One picture in my mind from that evening more than 50 years ago is the scene when Ensign Nellie Forbush, the army nurse from Little Rock, Ark., washes her hair on stage with real soapsuds and buckets of water while she sings, "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair."

More than any other, that simple action, performed in a makeshift shower on an island far away, helped me understand that these were ordinary people, thrust into a strange and dangerous place, who were finding ways to cope with their lives. How new and exciting it was to see the leading lady, barefoot, in a two-piece bathing suit and doused with water on stage.

Although "Some Enchanted Evening" has survived as the great love song from the show, "Younger Than Springtime" sent a romantic thrill to my young heart, without my understanding the dark subtext of racism beneath the relationship between Lt. Cable and Liat.

During the decades that followed, my memories of musicals spanned the great changes in style from the melodic offerings of Rodgers and Hammerstein, through the revolutionary notions of Stephen Sondheim – whose characters sang out monologues in an operaticlike recitation rather than conventional songs – to the innovation of Michael Bennett's "A Chorus Line," where the chorus kids became the characters in their own stories put on stage.

Fast-forward to spring 2008. I was fortunate to snag a ticket for the revival of "South Pacific" at New York's Lincoln Center Theater. Like the original production, the Lincoln Center presentation came trailing raves from the critics and a host of Tony nominations.

Kelli O'Hara as Ensign Forbush and Paulo Szot as the French planter, Emile de Becque, who loves her, are surrounded by a vocally superb cast who act out the story in unpretentious manner, as if the show were being improvised in real time before our eyes.

A visual emphasis is given to Rodgers's score by rolling back the stage floor hiding the pit to reveal the musicians, as if to enlist our memories to empower the current performance.

When I asked the man sitting next to me if he had seen the first production, he answered, "I was born in 1948, a year before the show's premier." So I guard my comparisons, but I can still sing the lyrics to all the songs.

"South Pacific" is booked for an open-ended run at Lincoln Center Theater. A national tour is slated to begin in fall of 2009.

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