I grew up listening to a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein; it was some of my mother’s favorite music, and so there was a lot of it in the house. More than any other musical of theirs, I listened to South Pacific.
Now, there are problems, of course, with that show. It’s a product of its time, and the original cast recording captures in amber some choices we might not make today. But for all that, the writing of the show, the message of it, is pointedly anti-racist. The two main plotlines each deal with different facets of specifically white, American racism, and different answers to it.
I’m listening to it again now, for a whole confluence of reasons, and really appreciating the message of it. Talking with Allie about it, she asked an interesting question: how were the negative responses to the anti-racism of it framed at the time? Where now people might likely say things like “PC gone too far!”, what did people say at the time to try to frame themselves as the “good guys” while opposing a message of anti-racism?
I ended up doing a little reading and research on this. It seems that the two pillars American white supremacy relied on at that time for its public defense were “decency” and “anti-communism”. When South Pacific was on tour, the Georgia legislature apparently introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”
How did people at the time undermine that? I don’t know. But I do know that Rodgers and Hammerstein stuck to their guns. They would not change one bit of the show to play better in the South. They turned out to be right not just morally, but artistically and economically: it ended up being one of their longest-running shows and eventually one of the canon of classic musicals, and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (the most explicitly anti-racist number) is one of the most remembered songs from the show.
There are many fronts we are fighting on today. We’re not just fighting racism and a renewed Jim Crow, but the rise of an authoritarian kleptocracy. But on the cultural battlefront, we can and must make our art unapologetic, as good as we can, and, well, convincing.