South Pacific (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

South Pacific (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

When South Pacific was turned into a film in 1958, the US was only about a decade out from World War II. In the intervening years, the anti-Communist sentiment that had helped validate the war had turned inward in the form of McCarthyism, a period during which a broad swath of Americans—particularly people in the arts—were cast as Communist sympathizers. Though nowhere near as outspoken as some of their creative peers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were nevertheless allied with liberal causes—a fact that South Pacific made clear. Not only did the movie venture to soften stereotypes of Southeast Asian people, it dealt head-on with questions of race and prejudice in quietly daring ways. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”—an explanation of inherited racism sung by Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable—was the most overt example. But there’s also the arc of Nellie Forbush, the American nurse who manages to look past her prejudice against mixed-race people and embrace her feelings for the French planter Emile de Becque, who has several children with a Polynesian woman (“I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy”). Or “Happy Talk,” a song by the jovial island woman Bloody Mary, who tries to help Lieutenant Cable shake his fear of marrying a nonwhite woman. Of course, such good messages won’t spread far if the songs aren’t catchy. But the melodies on South Pacific were strong enough to endure for decades after its release.

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