“Come away, come away,” Bloody Mary sings in one of the most mysterious, exotic, and seductive songs in musical theater – “Bali Ha’i,” from South Pacific. And the part of Bloody Mary will forever be linked with Juanita Hall, who created the role on stage in 1949.
Born in 1901 in Keyport, New Jersey, Hall went to a local public school and sang in a church choir. She later studied at The Juilliard School, and in the 1930s was assistant director for the Hall Johnson Choir as well as a soloist with the choir. Johnson was the musical director of Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures, and it was as a soloist and chorister in that work that Juanita Hall made her first appearance on Broadway.
She returned to the Great White Way in a 1934 revival of the drama Stevedore and the following year had a part in the comedy Sailor, Beware! For George Abbott’s play Sweet River (1936) – a dramatic adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Hall arranged and directed the choral music.
In 1942 she had a small role in S. N. Behrman’s play The Pirate, which starred the renowned Broadway duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. A 1943 salute to American folk and popular music, Sing Out, Sweet Land, also featured Hall. She was in Robert Turney’s thriller The Secret Room (1945) and the comedy Mr. Peebles and Mr. Hooker (1946) by Edward E. Paramore Jr., as well as in the Arlen and Mercer musical St. Louis Woman (1946).
But it was in the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific that Hall found the role that she would be most widely associated with, Bloody Mary. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as Tony Awards® in numerous categories, including those for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Libretto. The leads, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, both won Tonys® – as did Hall, for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
After her stint in South Pacific, Hall portrayed the proprietor of a Caribbean brothel in House of Flowers (1954) – by the unusual team of Truman Capote and Harold Arlen – which featured Diahann Carroll’s Broadway debut and starred Pearl Bailey.
In 1956 Hall played Narciss in The Ponder Heart, a play based on Eudora Welty’s story of the same name, and in 1958 she returned to Rodgers and Hammerstein as a member of the original cast of Flower Drum Song, playing the sly Madam Liang. The musical, focusing on the plight of Asian Americans, was the first on Broadway to feature a predominantly Asian cast, though Hall was an exception.
Original cast recordings of South Pacific, House of Flowers, and Flower Drum Song – all featuring Hall – are available through Sony.
In addition to her work on the stage, Hall played her famous Rodgers and Hammerstein roles in the movie adaptations of South Pacific (1959) and Flower Drum Song (1961), though her singing in South Pacific was dubbed by Muriel Smith.
Hall died in Bay Shore, New York, in 1968.