- Jodi Kimura and the Seabees of South Pacific. Photo by Matt Polk.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific is full of teachable moments. But even though the musical's premise — white soldiers and nurses dealing with their conflicted feelings of bigotry towards the ones they love — dates back to the golden age of musicals, it's hardly the first show to address racism through song and dance. Writes Sylviane Gold in Dance Magazine: "Until the 1960s, when rock musicians and filmmakers started catching up, musical theater was by far the most willing of our popular arts to decry racial prejudice and espouse social justice. Sometimes it was for the sake of high ideals, and sometimes it was for the sake of high box office. But by historical standards, Broadway has been an outpost of concern." Rodgers and Hammerstein were leaders in raising awareness of social issues through their music, and others have followed suit. Here are a few examples; feel free to add others in the comments.
South Pacific: Currently at the Kennedy Center, South Pacific's American enlisted men and women grapple with interracial relationships: One, Lt. Cable, falls in love with an island girl, but knows he could never take her home and be accepted, while the other, a nurse named Nellie, loves a Frenchman who has dark-skinned children from his previous marriage. When Cable spurns Liat, he sings the lesson of a song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."
Show Boat: Miscegenation laws are the target of this Hammerstein musical, which features the story of Julie La Verne and Steve Baker, the leading lady and man of a Mississippi show boat. But La Verne is a mixed-race woman passing as white, a revelation that's hinted to her cast when she sings the song "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," which one woman deems a "colored folks" song. Show Boat was the first musical with an integrated cast.
Avenue Q: In this raunchy Sesame-Street parody, puppet Princeton asks Kate Monster if she's related to Trekkie Monster since, y'know, they're both monsters. They are not, and after Kate calls Princeton out on her racism, she reveals some prejudices of her own in the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," a send-up of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." A slew of ethnic jokes ensue.
The King and I: Anna, a teacher to the king of Siam, struggles for her independence under his aggressive rule. But the first glimmer of cross-cultural understanding comes in the song "Getting to Know You," which Anna sings to the king's many children.
Hair: Free love is colorblind in the counterculture musical that preceded South Pacific at the Kennedy Center. White girls like the black boys, and the black girls like the white boys. The men put a rainbow of skin tones into an imagined draft conversation as well: Says one hippie, "The draft is white people sending black people to make war on the yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people."
Hairspray: The integration of a Baltimore dance show makes a plucky heroine of Tracy Turnblad, who shows the Corny Collins Show that rhythm comes in all shapes, shades and sizes. In "Run and Tell That," Seaweed begins, "I can't see why people look at me / And only see the color of my face / And then there's those that try to help, God knows / But always have to put me in my place."
Ragtime: Three ethnicities come together to sing for justice in the accidental killing of a black woman mistaken for an assassin in "Till' We Reach That Day," one of several songs that addresses racial inequity in Ragtime.
Miss Saigon: Another tragic wartime romance between an American soldier and an Asian civilian, based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly. In "Last Night of the World," he promises to take her with him to America — a promise that goes unfulfilled.
West Side Story: Star-crossed lovers from rival ethnic gangs make Shakespeare an American immigration story. In "A Boy Like That," Maria is encouraged to "Stick to your own kind."