Record Of The Week # 110

South Pacific (soundtrack)

I’ve been sorting out some records. I’ve a pile of LP’s that were my mother’s. What do you do with these old pieces of vinyl? Several were loved and played regularly, sadly leading to them being badly worn and scratched. So the solution is establishing if they’re actually playable. This exercise led me to the stage, and then film musical, South Pacific. I was astounded by how magnificent it was. It seems I had all these melodies and vocals etched into my psyche. The setting is an idyllic island in WW2 where a US base is located. On the island the personnel strut their stuff in high jinx and courtships. In the meanwhile the locals look on with their attractive yet simpler life. All this is set against an imminent deadly battle with the Japanese.

You’ll know many of the songs if not necessarily the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. They created some of the most important popular music of the mid to late 20th Century with Oklahoma! The King & I, Carousel and The Sound Of Music amongst their creations. In addition they wrote with other collaborators; so their canon of work is more considerable and brilliant. If’d you asked me to sing one of the songs I could have probably got most of them but it wasn’t until I spun the disc that I realised I knew them all.

In 1958 the stage play made it onto the silver screen. The storyline was extracted out of the The Tales Of The South Pacific, a book which won the 1948 Pulitzer Price by James Mitchener. He found real life stories and characters on the islands during his US Navy years at the end of WW2. This adaptation, by Hammerstein, is in many ways an exploration of confronting racism between the Americans and the islanders. This racism is explored in a couple of love stories. In one love story the American dies in the last Act on a dangerous mission (and solves the thorny US family problem of not having to marry a native). The other love story has, in the play and film, a happy ending. In real life it didn’t! To adult audiences this story line may have been more obvious than to me, a young boy, who just loved the tunes.

So to the songs. Each is typical of a musical: they tell a story in the timeline of the plot, all melodies sit on top of sumptuous orchestral arrangements that pull at your heart in terms of pure tunefulness, beauty and sentimentality. None more so than the duet ballad “Some Enchanted Evening”. Frank Sinatra, Art Garfunkel, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan subsequently covered the song. Here the original voice is that of Giorgio Tozzi. A sonorous and captivating operatic bass then a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. 

“There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” is a classic. A chorus of sailors lust after women to ease their frustrations of being isolated on a sunny island. There is comedy and splendid vocal performances by the cast. If the clip from the film is exceptional then seared into my brain is the 1977 BBC TV Morecambe & Wise Show. Here they recreated the song with singing and dancing from some unlikely sailors. The ‘crew’ consisted of Eddie Waring, Frank Bough, Michael Parkinson, Michael Aspel et al. Another cover was Captain Sensible (not from the US Navy but The Damned) who took “Happy Talk” to No. 1 in 1980. It’s a little surreal that he sings a pidgin English lyric about being happy originally sung by a Vietnamese woman with a penchant for chewing beetle nuts. 

Each song is a minor classic and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” where the chorus, this time of nurses. join the lead female actress, Mitzi Gaynor in another beach side joyful knockabout tune. She then sings and dances “A Wonderful Guy” with such fervour and heart warming affection that you may also want to marry him.

I find the whole film and soundtrack intoxicatingly romantic and at a pace that savours every second of the fluctuating emotions of the lovers. It’s soundtracks like this that must have influenced generations of musicians; it’s age and simpler portrayals are irrelevant. As a good friend remarked it’s a perfect Sunday album to relax and maybe read the papers by. Or if you’re feeling more energetic watching all the clips of the songs from the film on YouTube. 

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