A veteran’s take on “South Pacific”

Thanksgiving Follies scene from Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific on tour, which comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Jan. 10-15, 2012 (Photos: Peter Coombs)

When the touring production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific” comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe in early January, Valley audiences will enjoy a cast that includes Vietnam veteran Robert John Biederman, who describes his portrayal of Captain Brackett as “a salute to all the veterans in the audience.”

Biedermann was a naval officer working in cryposecurity, and his father was a captain during World War II. He praises “South Pacific” for its portrayal of something central to the experience of serving in the military — camaraderie between service members, and shares that he wears his father’s military dog tags during every performance.

Hammerstein and original director Joshua Logan adapted stories from James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” when writing the book for “South Pacific” — which features music by Rodgers and lyrics by Hammerstein. Biedermann praises the revival’s director for “taking the storyline so seriously” — treating the piece as “a straight show with music.”

Marcelo Guzman as Emile de Becque and Katie Reid as Nellie Forbush

“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific” follows two World War II romances in which race plays a significant role. “Racial issues are front and center with this musical,” reflects Biedermann. “My favorite word in the show,” says Biedermann, “is when Nellie says colored.” Seems Nellie falls for an older man who’s been widowed, but gets cold feet after learning his children had an Asian mother.

Meanwhile, an island mother dubbed “Bloody Mary” lures a young sailor named Joe to court her daughter Liat. The song “Happy Talk,” says Beidermann, is actually the mother’s way of saying “I want you to take my daughter so she doesn’t have to go through what I went through.”

Cathy Foi Mahi as Blood Mary in Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific

“Racial issues exist now as they did in World War II,” says Biedermann. “It should make you feel uncomfortable,” says Biedermann. “It’s all about how you were raised.” Apparently songs like “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” weren’t well accepted by some folks in the American South when the musical opened in 1949.

There’s plenty that’s lovely and light in the musical “South Pacific,” but those looking for deeper meaning will surely find it. And maybe it’ll serve to remind us all that only 1.7 million of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II are still with us, and that there’s much we can learn from their stories.

Biedermann says he’d love to welcome WWII veterans who see the show backstage, but you’ll have to check with ASU Gammage on how they handle such things. Click here to learn more about the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and here to learn more about the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.

— Lynn

Note: “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific” comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Jan. 10-15, 2012. Click here for show and ticket information.

Coming up: Valley youth tackle “Les Miserables”


One response to “A veteran’s take on “South Pacific”

  1. My father praised the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of history: South Pacific featuring Mitzi Gaynor in Pan‑O‑Vision. Dad spoke pointedly of Rossano Brazzi’s rich tenor voice as though it somehow modified the atrocities at Tarawa and cut short the bloodshed in Guam. My uncle Win, a Navy veteran of both Pearl Harbor and the Solomon Islands, complained always about Hollywood’s omissions. In the movies, Win pointed out, nobody ever got sick. But in the South Pacific – not the musical, but the actual theatre of operations – Win had contracted malaria, dengue fever…


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