April 04, 2012

Gonna wash that man right outta my hair

A few years ago, when Older Neighbor Boy was in a high school production of South Pacific, we all went to see it. Some of the kids had soft voices, which made it hard to hear, and I couldn’t follow the plot at all. One male character died near the end, but I didn’t know why, or whether or not I was supposed to be sad. It was all very confusing.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the play. The production featured lots of familiar songs, sung enthusiastically, and a bunch of tap-dancing high school kids, who looked like they were having fun. That’s pretty much all I ask of a high school production.

Oh, and a teenage girl washed her hair on stage while singing “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair.” It’s not her performance I remember so much as the reaction of her classmates. All up and down the rows of the auditorium, teenagers were leaning over to their parents and whispering, “That’s real water! Real shampoo! She’s really washing her hair!” Everyone was quite excited about this accomplishment, which had been carefully planned with ropes, a bucket, and water that was apparently pretty cold by the time the young actress used it.

Anyhow, when I told my mother about the play afterwards, she said, “Oh, South Pacific! That’s first Broadway play I ever saw. My father took me.” That was in 1949, and she was sixteen years old.

So when the play South Pacific came to Snowstorm City this year (and yes, we’re close enough to City Like No Other that we get plays right off Broadway on a regular basis), I bought tickets for my mother and me. I figured after 63 years, she was probably ready to see it again.

It was fun to go downtown to a play on a lovely spring night. During intermission, my mother and I talked about the costumes, the set design, and the choreography, all vast improvements over the high school production I’d seen. The plot even made sense in this version.

But one thing was the same: the lead actress did actually wash her hair on stage. She didn’t have a whole bunch of whispering teenage friends in the audience to spread the news, but she tossed the suds around enough for everyone to get that it was real.

“Yeah, it’s a thing,” my mother said. “They always use real water and shampoo.”

Times have changed since my mother first saw the play in 1949. The rigid gender roles in the play and the racial prejudice seem absurd now. But somehow, audiences still like to watch a woman wash her hair on stage. It seems an odd thing to have stood the test of time.


Sarah Sometimes said...

I love it! And what a nice theater evening with your mom.

Amy A. said...

For me, it's the retro swim suits and playsuits in that scene. I wish we still had those styles!

liz said...

They originally used Prell, but the actress had to also pretend to use a big bar of soap or people wouldn't believe that she was really shampooing her hair.

Zhoen said...

Oh, there is plenty of racism and sexism to make it relevant. Shampoo or no.

Leslie F. Miller said...

You know I hate musicals. It's the ONLY musical I have ever liked. And I love it.

BrightenedBoy said...

Maybe it's because it's usually such a private act?

Something about it really struck a cord with me, though, so I understand the audience reaction. It almost doesn't seem real that one could do such a thing on stage.