Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Song Lyrics of the Day (Rodgers and Hammerstein, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”)

“You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.”-- “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

I hate to say it, but after a year I still haven’t seen the wondrous Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. And, just as inexcusable, I haven’t had a chance to view the DVD of Reba McIntyre in the role.

No matter. I’ll get to one or the other. Like innumerable kids over the years, I saw the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on a high school stage—specifically, at my alma mater, St. Cecilia High School, 35 years ago, just before I started there. The briskness and verve of the show, even when performed by theatrical nonprofessionals, remain with me all these years later.

Constant performances, however, still possess the danger of inuring us to the shock and challenge present at its Broadway premiere on this date in 1949. A bit less than halfway through their 16-year collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein did something especially audacious: They examined how “The Good War,” fought to defeat Nazi notions of a master race, was waged by people of essentially good heart who were caught up in their own contradictions concerning what sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called “The American Dilemma.”

True, Myrdal’s account concerned “The Negro Problem,” but it was all too easy for audiences to make the easy transfer from prejudice against those with yellow skin in the South Pacific to those with black skin at home. And, to the credit of lyricist and composer, their song hit home.

All these years later, it is easy for some, such as critic Stefan Kanfer, to dismiss “Carefully Taught” as an “achingly self-conscious editorial.” But it raised the issue of homegrown American racism in a way that hadn’t been done so bluntly on Broadway since—well, since another collaboration of Hammerstein, this time with Jerome Kern: Show Boat, with its theme of miscegenation.

Hammerstein had a well-deserved reputation for working slowly (which you would, too, if you worked on the book and lyrics for a show), and at one point director Joshua Logan had to come out to his Pennsylvania farmhouse for some consultation and friendly prodding. If you look at “Carefully Taught,” you might wonder why the process took so long. It’s short and without the linguistic wordplay that, for instance, Stephen Sondheim has been known to pen.

The character who sings the song, Lt. Joe Cable, is supposed to be a product of Philadelphia high society, but that seems to be more like a device to underline the distance between himself and his Polynesian love. For in the way he talks, this communications officer could be an almost classless representative of the country whose mission he’s attempting to fulfill—plainspoken, fundamentally decent, but all too human as he confronts a world he never knew existed.

Cable sings the lyrics to Nellie Forbush, the other American caught in a complicated interracial romance. On this one level, he’s on the same emotional frequency as this self-described “cockeyed optimist.” She’s just told him she can’t help the way she feels about the half-Polynesian children of French planter Emile: she’s just born that way.

Cable’s insistence that she is wrong—that if such actions are the result of environment rather than genetics, they can be overcome—points Nellie toward a way out of her dilemma.

To be sure, Rodgers and Hammerstein had to tone down some aspects of their characters, as originally published in James Michener’s original Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of interrelated stories, Tales of the South Pacific. Postwar audiences would have looked askance at Emile’s eight mixed-race children by four different unmarried women (in fact, I imagine Rush Limbaugh might do the same thing today), so the songwriting team reduced the number to two children from Emile’s union with one wife (conveniently dead).

But even what they did write was an unmistakable challenge. Their prior collaborations, though artistically daring, had never tackled serious social issues before. Now, such an issue—prejudice—drove the plot and subplot. As an audience member, you couldn’t escape from it.

Many people wanted desperately to do so. Even before the show opened, the songwriters had to rebuff attempts to soften the message of “Carefully Taught” or even excise it altogether. Even well into the show’s run into the 1950s, South Pacific could still raise hackles, particularly in the South.

Two Georgia legislators charged that, because it promoted interracial marriage, “Carefully Taught” represented an “underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” Hammerstein responded simply that he was surprised to hear that anything smacking of kindness and humanity “must necessarily originate in Moscow.”

No wonder a nation bent on a mission to save the world from totalitarianism in the 1940s and 1950s would embrace Rodgers and Hammerstein—their musicals represent, in a way, the triumph of Western Civilization in general and the American Century in particular. Oklahoma, for instance, considers the opening of the West, and though The King and I is written from the standpoint of a 19th-century British woman in Siam, it might as well be an American following WWII.

In this regard, “Carefully Taught” stands as emblematic of the songwriters’ liberal belief that deep down, people are all alike, that the force of circumstance—history, if you will—can be made to yield before the deepest instincts of the human heart—not just love, but freedom. Nellie and Lt. Cable are cockeyed optimists, but perhaps also, as events through the rest of the century and into this one would prove, innocents abroad.

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