“There are many here among us / Who feel that life is but a joke / But you and I we’ve been through that / And this is not our fate.” • Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower, 1967
“What’s it all about, Alfie?” • Burt Bacharach and Hal David
I’m writing this while listening to the soundtrack of the revival of South Pacific, which played at Lincoln Center here in NYC in 2008 and won eight Tony awards. It starred Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush, Paulo Szot as Emile de Beque, and Matthew Morrison (Will Schuster on Glee) as Lt. Joseph Cable. The show, written by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan, opened on Broadway in 1949, and is based on James Michener’s series of short stories about the Pacific theatre, Tales of the South Pacific, which was published in 1947, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. It was only 4 years since the end of World War II, and audiences embraced the musical – many of the veterans had served in the South Pacific. (Michener served in the Navy, and the stories are based on both his own experiences, the people he met, and the “tales” other soldiers told him.)
The underlying theme in South Pacific is the battle against racism – the first musical to ever attack prejudice. It does so through the “A” and “B” stories, which run concurrently and intersect in the second act. In the “A” story, Nellie, a Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with the French planter, Emile, who fled from his country because of a murder he committed while protecting a woman from being raped. Though Nellie forgives Emile for this, she rejects him when she learns Emile was married previously to a Polynesian woman, whom she calls “colored.” In the “B” story, Marine Lt. Joseph Cable, from Philadelphia, falls in love with the Tonkinese Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat. (Tonkinese is an old nomenclature for Vietnamese – the Gulf of Tonkin, anyone?) But Cable refuses to marry her, despite Bloody Mary warning him that she will marry Liat to a French planter. He knows that his “Main Line” family will never accept Liat and the society into which he is expected to take his place after the war, and he cannot face the isolation and shunning that marriage to Liat will bring.
I guess I’m listening to the soundtrack because last week my mom became ill and was in the hospital for a few days. She’s now been transferred to the same nursing home facility in which my father lives – if you can call it living – these days. (When I went to see him last week, he didn’t know who I was at first…I had to tell him.) My mom has been living independently, but now we are wrestling with moving her into assisted living.
As frequent readers of this column know, my mom became a registered nurse through the Army Nurse Cadet program and my dad was a fighter pilot in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre – and when I went to see South Pacific with my mom seven years ago, she and I talked about what it was like when she and my dad went to see it on Broadway in 1949, in an audience made up of veterans and their husbands and wives, of how the story almost visibly reverberated in the theatre.
They, and their peers, were part of The Greatest Generation.
But sometimes I wonder…
What it’s all really about?
Well, the weather this winter has really been lousy for most of us, hasn’t it? (No snide laughter from those of you living in those few parts of the States where white is not the prevailing color on the ground and where the temperature is above 0º.) So being stuck inside when not at work, I’ve been on a new binge the past few weeks – rewatching Ronald D. Moore’s reworking of Battlestar Galactica.
Rewatching BSG (and it really should be BG, since “Battlestar” is one word) is absolutely engrossing, perhaps even more so than when it originally appeared on the Sci-Fi channel beginning with the miniseries in 2003, and then continuing as an ongoing series in 2004 through 2009. Although Mr. Moore does not exactly state that he knew what the final denouement would be in the podcasts accompanying each episode, the overarching mystical theme of BSG – “All this has happened before, and will happen again” – is repeated many times by many different characters throughout the entire storyline.
Certainly the exploration of religion, morality, intolerance, and politics is there from the very beginning; but I think the biggest question Mr. Moore is asking is “what does it mean to be human and alive?”
In fact, that is exactly what Six (Tricia Helfer) asks the Colonial representative just before “neutral meeting ground” is blown to kingdom come – “Are you alive?” she asks him, before bending and kissing him as the walls come a-tumbling down.
BSG also asks the audience “Do we truly have free will, or are our fates already determined?” I just finished watching “Maelstrom,” the episode in which Kara Thrace, a.k.a. Starbuck, seems to answer that for us, conquering her fear of death and accepting her fate as her Viper spins out of control and is destroyed. It appears to all aboard the Galactica that she committed deliberate suicide – but is there more to Kara’s fate? Was her death only one step in her real journey? (Those of us who have already seen it know the answer.)
BSG also questions technology: yes, we are capable of creating technological wonders, but can we ultimately control them? The Cylons are the most obvious examples of that question, as “man created the Cylons,” as it says in the prelude. And “they rebelled.” On a more subtle level, the only reason the Galactica wasn’t destroyed when the Cylons launched their attack on humanity was because Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) did not connect the ship’s computers to the larger fleet network.
As the mysterious entities (angels?) that we know as Baltar and Six walk through a modern Times Square in New York City, BSG is asking us one final question before the credits roll:
“All of this has happened before. But the question remains, does all of this have to happen again?”
What’s it all really about?