Fifty years of musical memories
Musicals such as 'South Pacific' marked an era.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.