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South Pacific Poster Case Study

Writer: Becky

Musical posters are fascinating. Often, they are the first point of interaction between a potential patron and the show itself. They have to intrigue enough to have someone at least seek more information about a show, if not book a ticket. In a holdover (aka, The Stuff That Got Cut) from my MA thesis, this post considers two posters for South Pacific: the 2008 Broadway production at Lincoln Center, and the 2022 UK Tour production. If nothing else, it is always interesting to see how the same show is marketed differently—I don’t think we discuss show artwork enough!

The first thing I’ve always noticed about the 2008 artwork is its art style. Nowadays, certainly in the West End, artwork leans toward the realist style: here is our star, they seem to scream. When the cast changes, so must the artwork. This isn’t to say that the Lincoln Centerposter is devoid of a star; it’s quite clear that Nellie (front and centre in her “Honey Bun” costume) is Kelli O’Hara, but it isn’t being screamed from the rooftop. Unlike the current economic situation of the West End and UK touring markets, where name recognition is almost necessary for a non-Disney or non-cultural zeitgeist (Hamilton, Six, Rocky Horror) show to sell, Sher’s South Pacific continued to sustain its audience after O’Hara’s departure. It became part of the 2008-10 New York cultural zeitgeist.

South Pacific is, ultimately, a love story. It focuses on community, regarding the U.S. CBs and Bloody Mary and her workers, but this largely disappears at the end of the second act—the marines go off to war, and Mary is left to console Liat. The enduring image of South Pacific is what is called the “final tableau”: Nellie, Emile, and his children sitting at a table, eating dinner. This seems to be where the 2022 poster places its focus.

Sher’s production was what James Lovensheimer calls a “type one” revival; whereby the aim is to try and recreate the original production as accurately as possible. Every element of the show is thus indicative of a desire to almost turn back to 1949, where a hyper realistic poster style was non-existent—many were still drawn by hand. As can be seen in the “imperfect” Cs in this poster, there is a distinct human-touch applied to the design. 

Furthermore, the focus seems to be on what has been characterised as a culture-clash between the U.S. military occupation, privileging this over the romance between Nellie and Emile—something the Chichester poster focuses almost solely upon. I will say, though, that how this poster portrays the Polynesian or Asian women is fairly awful. Whilst the White Americans have fully-fledged facial features, the women of colour are faceless. This is, unfortunately, in-line with this production’s overall treatment of its Asian characters, which is painfully didactic. Equally, this could be merely an oversight, but it is one that is unconscionable. It seems to bring its prospective audience back to the 1940s in more than just style.

Immediately it’s apparent that there is more happening here that in the 2008 poster. Between the star-rating, the sub-heading, and the actors’ names, this poster is saying more—both figuratively and literally. At this point, I’m just going to admit that I will forever find the missing full stop in “Love. Conflict. Passion[.]” infuriating, so I can get it off my chestIt is a triple, and should be punctuated accordingly. Otherwise, the tagline is fitting; South Pacific is comprised of love, conflict, and passion (and in a sense, they appear sandwiched like this in the plot)

One thing Evans’s production consistently focuses upon is love in its many forms: maternal, paternal, romantic, and platonic. Looking at this poster without knowledge of the show, and being immediately drawn to the tagline and image of lead actors Gina Beck and Julian Ovenden in a close embrace, highlights the centrality of love. To this end, the orange background colour is akin to a sunset, and it is telling of the “exotic” setting of the play. Between this and the palm trees, and the title, it is impossible not to take away a sense of the “exotic” and romantic from glancing at the poster.

Something interersting about licensing in general, but particular licensing of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, is the stipulation of the inclusion of their names: “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific” appears on both posters. It has to. It is curious though that this is smaller on the ’08 poster, with the production itself being “type one”, we could reasonably expect a greater play on nostalgia. Playing up the names of the authors (and leaving out Joshua Logan, who collaborated on the book) would be conducive to this, one would expect? 

Conversely, I think the cultural legacy of South Pacific in the UK is inherently different to that of the States’. For one, South Pacific sets its characters in the buildup to Guadalcanal—one of the bloodiest fights in the Second World War’s Pacific Theater; the Pacific Theater itself is not part of British cultural memory. Everything we feel close to, via national memory or familial ties, tends to be related to the European Theater. Think of that “Blitz Spirit” constantly invoked by the British right-leaning press. All of this is to say that the emphasis of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s” on the 2022 poster, compared to its relatively subdued size on the 2008 one, may aid in bridging a potential gap with knowledge of the work itself. If a prospective audience member does not know of South Pacific, they likely know of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I will say, it would have been nice if the authors’ names had been edited to the same perspective-point as South Pacific. The blank space between the top of the title and the bottom of the flat “Rodgers and Hammerstein” is slightly aesthetically off-putting—but that’s just personal preference.

Overall, then, these posters highlight different elements of the show, based on potential knowledge-gaps. The differences also speak to how far the present trend of West End and London posters—star-focused—has moved from a more traditional, hand-drawn style. It’s cool to see how different they are, and yet they’re both marketing the same show! Sometimes that’s something we don’t readily notice, particularly when it comes to revivals with long periods between different stagings.

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