"Carefully Taught" - Hammerstein Had Some Coconuts to Write This One
A musical that deals with the complications of racisim and how bigotry is learned and not inborn sounds like the product of the progressive theatre movement of the 1960s. The year is 1949 and the musical is South Pacific, opening in a time where barriers between interracial love are barely dicussed let alone so blatantly addressed. South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and never has a musical been more deserving of the honor. This is not just light, breezy musical theatre or tongue-in-cheek musical comedy. This was musical theatre probing deeper than it ever had, delving into complex issues that were more than taboo, they could incite violence in many areas of our country.
Composer Richard Rodgers was always leary of topics in his musicals that were too controversial or that were overly experimental, outside of the box of the "usual" in musical theatre. It is fortunate, then, that he eventually paired with lyricist and bookwriter Oscar Hammerstein, II, who had never shied away from stirring up the pot with a theatre that made people think. His lyrics for the musical Show Boat (1927) predating his work with Rodgers by 16 years are evidence that he was interested in taking musical theatre storytelling to a far more cerebral and challenging place, going so far as integrating music, lyrics, story, character, and theme LONG before Oklahoma! when it was finally embraced.
Hammerstein's work on South Pacific (1949) may be his most thought-provoking, especially when one takes into account his survey on racism in the song "Carefully Taught." Sung by Lt. Joseph Cable, an American soldier serving in the South Pacific, the song refects his confusion after falling in love with the Polynesian girl Liat. Though he cares deeply for the girl, he cannot marry her. Maybe it has somethign to do with how his family and the people back home will react? Maybe it's something inherent in him that won't alow him to allow himself to succumb to love outside his race? He resolves that he was not born to think that way, he had it drilled into him by the people around him. He can no longer separate his own feelings from the tainted ones instilled in him.
Hammerstein went there. In 1949, he had the the balls the size of coconuts required to look racisim square in the face and call it what it is. This is a time when people are being called communists just for thinking outside of the whitewashed norm. Sadly, he never achieved any lyrics after South Pacific that quite took these risks. The King and I came close, but never quite took the leap. It skirted the issues that could have propelled the plot and music if they had been willing to probe those cultural differences. Flower Drum Song was musical comedy and didn't strive to make commentary on much of anything except for the generation gap. The Sound of Music was even more innocuous, leaning towards the syrupy Hallmark card approach, despite the rife possibilities of tackling deeper issues. It was the Hammerstein of Allegro, Carousel and South Pacific that I prefer to remember and champion. The Hammerstein who was not afraid to have a big voice to match his coconuts.