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Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein
Like The Wizard of Oz, The
Catcher in the Rye, and Gone With the Wind, Oklahoma! is more than a work of
immense popularity. It has become a benchmark of American culture both for Americans and
others. It is always being performed somewhere in the world in spaces ranging from school
auditoria to professional stages. In 1993 alone, for example, the rights were granted for
900 individual productions. It has never left Broadway for long; after its original
multi-year run in the 1940's, the original staging was remounted at New York's City Center
in the 1950's, Rodgers supervised a production at Lincoln Center in 1969, and it was
revived with customary success a decade later in 1979. Add to this theatrical ubiquity a
faithful 1955 film adaptation which disseminated its charms to non-theatergoers,
and you have not a great American musical, but the great American
Is there anyone who doesn't know the tune to "Oh, What a Beautiful
Morning"? And now it's once again back on Broadway, this time via England, which is
not strange because, more than any of its successors, Oklahoma! created the
British infatuation with the American musical. Its initial London visit in 1947 was the
biggest hit in Drury Lane's 285-year history. For a long time, West End productions of
American musicals tried (and still try) to emulate their American originals. But about a
decade ago something else started happening: the directors of British subsidized theatres
began to experiment with new, revisionary revivals of familiar American musicals such as Guys
and Dolls, Carousel,
and My Fair Lady, refusing to be phased by the musical's firm
anchoring in the world of entertainment. Major repertory directors like Richard Eyre and
Nicholas Hytner began to put the old wine into new bottles.
Renovator-in-chief was ex-Royal Shakespeare Company head Trevor Nunn
who, after all, had initiated a major turn in the evolution of the musical form decades
ago when he transformed a small minor musical play based on light verse by T.S. Eliot into
the environmentally spectacular Cats.
In 1998 Nunn revived Oklahoma! at the Royal National Theatre in a production so
successful it moved into a long commercial run in the West End after its repetory season.
Nunn was determined to show America his vision of Americana, but American Actors Equity
refused to permit a Broadway transfer. But Nunn persevered, and he finally succeeded in
effecting a compromise in which two of the original principals joined a new American
company. The rest of the artistic team remained and the result--the attractive and
energetic revival currently playing on Broadway--by most reports is faithful to Nunn's
original version, although among those who have seen it on both sides of the Atlantic a
critical consensus has arisen that something ineffable from the London original is
What has Nunn brought to this new production? From our contemporary
vantage point, nothing really radical. He has indeed extended and deepened Oklahoma's
original premise which, in the context of its time, was genuinely revolutionary: the idea
that the sum of the various components of a musical comedy should be greater than its
parts; that book, lyrics, dance should not be discrete, separate entities, but rather
partake in a common artistic journey.
There were, of course, predecessors that worked toward this goal of
Joey) but in no popular musical work before Oklahoma! did speech move so
logically into song or song into dance. The most visible manifestation of this was the use
of serious dance--ballet--to convey emotions unexpressable in popular dance, emotions
which rise to a climax at the end of the first act in Laurey's dream ballet. Here erotic
energies, at first liberating, turn into a nightmare both feared and desired. This dark
element has always existed in Oklahoma!, a legacy from its source, Lynn Riggs'
Grow the Lilacs. In Nunn's new version it is underlined.
The sequence is now more powerful because Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey,
a hold-over from the British production, is capable of doing her own dancing. So we do not
have to watch a dancer surrogate come face to face with the implacable Jud, the menacing
hired hand, as has been the case in the past. The original choreography by Agnes DeMille
created a much imitated style invariably reproduced by subsequent choreographers. But not
now--the choreography by the enormously talented Susan Strohman is new. Strohman, fresh
from The Producers, has recently gone from triumph to triumph, and now
has earned membership in the rarified hyphenate realm of director/choreographer reserved
for such as Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.
here is superlative. More populist, less formally balletic than DeMille's, it has enormous
energy. It is infectious in its ho-downs and promenading, yet emotionally personal when
necessary, which is part of Nunn's esthetic: he aims to find the core of realism in the
work's formal components which makes them part of a truthful whole. Paradoxically, this
search for realism can result in images that are at times theatrically fanciful. In a film
the big sky can be revealed by panoramic long shots, but not on stage. And so Nunn (with
designer Anthony Ward) uses miniature houses, windmills, water tank, and trains to let us
know that this turn-of-the-twentieth-century settlement in unincorporated Indian
territory, not yet a state, is in the middle of nowhere. Point made, fancifully.
Nunn also does all he can to stress the social conflict between farmers
and cowboys that underlies the region's growing pains and is the subject of the opening
song in Act 2 "The Farmer and the Cowman." But Hammerstein hasn't given him much
besides this song to work with. Ever the cock-eyed optimist, Hammerstein the liberal
admitted social evils like discrimination and economic aggrandizement into the previously
socially virginal world of musical comedy, usually to triumph over them. So the book of Oklahoma!
skirts the issue of class conflict and basically circles around the two love triangles
involving Laurey and Annie respectively. Still, despite these plot limitations, Nunn
searches out a core of realism. The nefarious Jud, who lusts after Laurey, is decidedly
less creepy than usual. Shuler Hensley acts and sings a complex and isolated character
more to be pitied than scorned. He is also good-looking enough so that we can consider him
a possible "bad boy" alternative to the irrepressibly optimistic Curley.
Finally, of course, Oklahoma!'s endurance rests on its
indelible music. This year is the centennial of Richard Rodgers birth, and some music
historians estimate that he is the most performed composer who ever lived. Surely he
remained throughout a long career an endless fount of melodic inventiveness. Whether
working with the acerbic Lorenz Hart--who died the year Oklahoma! debuted--or the
optimistic Oscar Hammerstein, Rodgers had the ability to write tunes that seem simple and
obvious but which insistently enter musical memory and refuse to leave. So the folk play
quality of Green Grow the Lilacs played directly to Rodgers' strength, and Oklahoma!
initiated the most successful collaboration in American musical history. The current
production celebrates its jewel of a score--who can ask for anything more?: In addition to
the performers already mentioned, Patrick Wilson, late of The Full Monty, as a fine-voiced
Curley, Jessica Boevers as Ado Annie who "cain't say no," and Andrea Martin as
Aunt Ellie head a vibrant company which catches the pulse of a new beginning--of a state
and of a genre.
New York, April 5, 2002
- Gerald Rabkin