Friday, April 04, 2008

Happy Talk Keep Talkin' Happy Talk

Big news on Broadway: they’re reviving South Pacific. When I heard the news yesterday, I groaned and said in an alarmed voice, “Are you serious?!”

Andrew raised an eyebrow, backed away. “It’s a wonderful show,” he said suspiciously. “It’s based on a Michener book. It’s full of great songs.” He sang a bar of “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Andrew can’t fully appreciate my difficult relationship with South Pacific. After all, he hadn’t been there for the buckets of fake-tan-paint.

Sophomore year of high school, I was in South Pacific. Many of you reading this blog saw, or were also perhaps in, that play. It was hardly the worst high school play I’ve experienced; as far as shows go, it was blessedly free from complicated dance numbers, complicated, dissonant Stephen Sondheim ensemble pieces, or overly complicated scenery, which would have “inspired” our director to “improvise” in ways that were always—so consistently!—a complete and utter disaster, leaving already-dramatic high school actors/actresses either hysterically laughing or sobbing in the wings.

But I digress. What I remember about South Pacific—besides the fact that it was a good three-and-a-half hours long, the most painfully slow musical in all eternity—was that it was imperative for the girls in the chorus to look tan. Island tan. The show would have been in March or April, I think, which would have placed everyone firmly in pasty-white territory after a long, cold Pennsylvania winter. The tan problem was important enough that the director hired “make-up artists” to resolve it—who these people were, where they came from, or whether I’m simply conjuring a false memory is anyone’s guess. And why they didn’t just have us all use fake tanning lotion is also anyone’s guess—maybe it wasn’t widely available in 1993; who knows. Or maybe it just wasn’t “theatrical” enough, not on par with the black lines we all painted on our faces with eyeliner for “shadowing.”

In any case, the make-up artists proceeded to mix up buckets of an adobe-like paste that we smeared onto our bodies with sponges. Once dry, it had the consistency and appearance of terra-cotta-colored chalk. I can’t even begin to describe what we looked like, or how quickly the paste stained the cut-off denim shorts and knotted-at-the-waist plaid shirt I wore to look like an island nurse. We looked like walking flower pots. The effect was blinding. I remember hysteria. Yet the result was deemed excellent by our director.

In the Times editorial page this morning, Lawrence Downes discusses South Pacific’s ahead-of-its-time handling of race and racism—elements that I, in my oh-so-enlightened days as a high school sophomore, never even consciously noted. How did I never question the troubling liaison between young Liat and Lt. Cable? How did I never cringe at the Bloody Mary caricature? How did I never think about the politics behind the chirpy songs? My awareness—and of course I can’t speak for the rest of my former cast mates, but I suspect this holds true for most of all of them as well—did not extend past the inside jokes, the ridiculous costumes, the jittery, I-want-to-be-an-actress! feeling of opening night. The meaning of this show, and the history behind it, weren’t part of the equation. The closest anyone ever came to analyzing a high school musical during my high school tenure was, I think, to hear adults expressing whispered horror that the local public school would do Grease—and whether or not they’d take out the scandalous pregnancy.

Ah, memories. It was an enchanted series of evenings, indeed. I don’t think I can see South Pacific, even now, without being filled with the pervasive sense that the entire cast is standing on the brink of disaster, just one missed cue away from utter failure, just one errant sponge-swipe away from being blinded by whatever was in those buckets, just one more rendition of “Happy Talk” away from going off the deep end.

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