South Pacific SceneHow Vanuatu inspired one of the world’s great musicals.

 Ever wondered on what enchanted island ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ is set? Or where to go to hear the call of Bali Ha’i?

Ever wondered where the makeshift shower was in which Nellie Forbush was going to wash that man right of her hair? Wonder no more. It was all here in Vanuatu.

Vanuatu was the setting for one of the most famous and successful musicals of all time, South Pacific. As anyone who has seen it knows, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘Bali Ha’i’ and ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ are among its most enduring songs. People often have the notion that the film was set in Tahiti or Samoa or somewhere else in the South Pacific. But it wasn’t. It was based on short stories written in Tales of the South Pacific by the American writer James A. Michener. He was in Vanuatu (then called the New Hebrides) during the Second World War and it was here that he set his stories.


South Pacific Opera Australia ProductionIn an earlier article (see issue 10), I wrote about Michener and his Tales of the South Pacific, for which he won a Pulitzer prize. This collection was based on observations and stories collected while serving in the Pacific. Most of Michener’s wartime posting as a US Navy lieutenant commander was on the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. He had been assigned to the US Navy as an historian and after surviving an air crash began writing fiction in addition to his official duties. Some of the US personnel Michener met would have come to Vanuatu on troopships like the converted liner President Coolidge, sunk by a mine in Luganville harbour in October 1942, and now a popular visitor attraction as a diving site.

The stories in Tales are interrelated with recurring characters and plot lines that are loosely connected. Two stories in particular caught the attention of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, already phenomenally successful with their two massive hits, Oklahoma (1943) and Carousel (1945) and looking for a new subject for a musical. ‘Fo’ Dolla’, tells the story of a romance between a Tonkinese woman, Liat, and an American officer, Lieutenant Joseph Cable. The story takes place on an imaginary island called Bali Ha’i inspired by the island of Ambae in Penama Province, which Michener is known to have visited. The volcano on Ambae is still menacingly active as it was in Michener’s time and has been for thousands of years. ‘Our Heroine’ is a love story between US Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush and the wealthy sophisticated Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner. To this day plantations owners originally from France, live and work in Vanuatu comprising some of the biggest and oldest settler families in Vanuatu. ‘Fo’ Dolla’ and ‘Our Heroine’, while linked with other stories in Tales, illustrate the impact of the arrival of the American servicemen on local and expatriate people. The drama of these encounters is beautifully expressed in the songs and lyrics of the musical.

It must have been hard for Rogers and Hammerstein to imagine what they could write that would surpass the success of Oklahoma. The story goes that a friend of Rogers suggested Tales to him but he didn’t show much interest. Then, another friend gave a copy of the book to Hammerstein, who after reading it spoke to Rogers and they decided to work on it. Michener’s rich panoply of characters and exotic locations must certainly have enthused the two highly imaginative Americans, the first a composer, the second a lyricist.

Mary Martin tales of the south pacific

Hammerstein introduced another innovation while working on the book for South Pacific. He included the romances from both stories in the musical plan but, in contrast with other musicals with parallel love stories where one story would be serious and the other more comic, both Nellie and Emile’s and Liat and Joseph’s stories are presented seriously. The comic element in the musical, and there is plenty of it, is largely provided through the character of Luther Billis (in the film version played by Ray Walston, later to star in the 1960s television series My Favourite Martian), who’s an entrepreneurial Seabee (US Navy construction worker) always looking to make a buck or get out of work.

Perhaps the best known character in South Pacific is Bloody Mary. She owes something to Michener’s encounters with a Tonkinese plantation worker on Santo. She told him about the troubles living under French colonial rule and how she and other Tonkinese were prevented from returning home. She’d learnt to swear from the GIs and her mouth was stained with betel nut-juice, hence the epithet ‘Bloody’. It’s also said that the model for Bloody Mary might be either Aggie Grey or her sister Mary Croudace (Aunty Mary), hoteliers in Apia, Samoa, who were the daughters of an English father and Samoan mother.

souht pacific musical

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics and book of South Pacific with some assistance from director Joshua Logan, who provided technical advice about the military setting in Vanuatu. When the words were ready, Rogers started composing the music straight away. He wrote the music for some of the songs – ‘Happy Talk’ is an example – in a matter of minutes. ‘Bali Ha’I I Hear You Calling’ is said to have been written in ten minutes, while Rogers was drinking coffee at Logan’s apartment. This song, by the way, is a particularly moving example of the intense creative symbiosis between Rogers and Hammerstein. Hammerstein’s lyrics about the mysteriousness of the island are beautifully introduced by the three-note motif Rogers composed for the beginning of the song.

The original production of South Pacific opened on Broadway in April 1949. With Mary Martin playing Nellie Forbush and Ezio Pinza, a former lyric bass at the Metropolitan Opera, as Emile de Becque. The production displayed a number of innovations under Logan’s direction, such as lap changes where characters would wait in the dark for their part, thus reducing the need for scene changes and giving the impression the action was almost uninterrupted. The audience reaction on opening night was overwhelming, with regular extended applause that stopped the production a number of times and a long-standing ovation when the curtain came down. It was clear the following day Rogers and Hammerstein had created another huge success. When it closed in 1954 South Pacific was the longest running musical in the history of Broadway after Oklahoma. The tour throughout the United States that followed lasted five years.

In 1951 South Pacific opened at the Theatre Royal in London with young actors Sean Connery and Larry Hagman playing Seabees.

Hale Theatre Centre Theatre Production south pacific musical

A film version of South Pacific was a natural extension of the success of the stage production, just as it had been with Oklahoma. Many of the people involved in the Broadway production, including Joshua Logan as director, worked on the film. The original plan was for both Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza to play their stage roles in the film. But a host of Hollywood celebrities wanted to audition, and finally Mitzi Gaynor was given the role of Nellie and the Italian actor Rossano Brazzi was cast as the Frenchman Emile de Becque. Juanita Hall from the original stage production played Bloody Mary but Muriel Smith provided the singing voice. In spite of the Vanuatu setting of the story, the filming took place in Hawaii and Spain. Neither was Vanuatu used for a 2001 remake with Glenn Close as Nellie and Harry Connick Jnr as Joe Cable.

South Pacific is among the most enduring musical productions of the twentieth century. It is popular with professional opera companies, amateur theatres and as a musical for school theatre groups. The delightful combination of song, dance and dialogue, the exotic locations and enduring power of love and its consequences are all part of the appeal of South Pacific, which continues to draw audiences around the world. If you can’t see the musical live, the film versions will certainly have you singing along. And to put the icing on the cake, visit Vanuatu and Espiritu Santo, where it all began.

Nellie and Emile Tales of the south pacific


Visiting Ambae

There are regular flights to Ambae (the inspiration for Michener’s mysterious island of Bali Hai) from Port Vila and Luganville. Accommodation options are limited with several guesthouses and bungalows on the south west and north east coast. Contact the Vanuatu Tourism Office for more information – www.vanuatutravel.info.

Visiting Santo

Air Vanuatu provides daily return flights from Port Vila to Santo. Santo Island is one of the most interesting parts of Vanuatu and offers a diverse range of tourism activities, from jungle walks to diving the President Coolidge. There are several World War II tours in Luganville and surrounding areas that provide the opportunity to walk in Michener’s footsteps. Visit the Santo Travel Centre website for information on what to do and where to stay – www.santo.travel.

Story by Anthony Bailey, photography compiled by Anthony Bailey.