“Country’s a-changin’, got to change with it!”
So Oklahoma!’s Curly tells her true love Laurey moments after she accepts her adorably flustered proposal. Wait, did I just write “her” for Curly? If you’re in Ashland, Ore., yes, ma’am—that’s the correct pronoun. Bill Rauch’s current staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic has found a new way to make the heart beat faster and the eye tear up: Curly and Laurey’s romance now blazes brightly in a nation torn between LGBTQ rights and bigoted backlash. Their pure love is echoed in the comical affair between roper Will Parker and his randy sweetheart, Ado Andy (originally Annie), now “just a boy who cain’t say no.”
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s inclusive, progressive Oklahoma!, which runs through Oct. 27, imagines the Western territories as a frontier utopia where kindness and civility, not sexual identity or ideology, are the criteria for citizenship. Talk about changing with the times.
Meanwhile on the opposite coast, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, director Daniel Fish’s revival of Oklahoma! is fixin’ to start previews Sept. 27 prior to an Oct. 7 opening. Like Rauch’s Oklahoma!, this one features a diverse cast. But the romantic pairs—Curly/Laurey and Ado Annie/Will Parker—are each played by a cisgender man and woman. And where Rauch’s staging is traditional in terms of period, costumes, orchestrations, and aw-shucks temperament, Fish’s take is coolly conceptual, even brooding. The setting is homey enough: Audiences sit at communal tables around a central playing area; during intermission, the cast and crew cook and serve food. And the lush Rodgers score has been rearranged for a bouncy bluegrass band.
The whole setup, which had its premiere at Bard College in 2015, smacks of a town gathering, a bit like the box social that drives the plot. But don’t go looking for showbiz flourishes or sunny, cornpone readings of Hammerstein’s dialogue. The love scenes all have an edge of hesitancy and doubt. The famous dream ballet includes a lot of, well, standing still. And the death of Jud Fry, a surly farmhand and Curly’s rival for Laurey’s love, is rendered as a Quentin Tarantino-like spasm of violence.
What does it mean that both productions coincide with the work’s 75th anniversary, when a revival hasn’t hit Broadway in 15 years, and the American musical has since rapidly evolved—mostly recently marrying hip-hop to colonial history, or exploring foreign musical idioms, such as Arabic classical music? Does Oklahoma! need such radical rethinking to stay relevant? Or is there something profound inherent in the work that still speaks to our times, with a little prompting?
Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization—hence the guy who approved both directorial spins—isn’t completely sure why Oklahoma! attracted these two disparate directors in this moment.
“I’ve always felt that the revolution that the show represented is hard to discern,” Chapin says of the play, whose 1943 premiere overturned many Broadway conventions, then set new ones. “To our modern eyes and ears, it’s what the musical theatre became based on—we take it for granted.”
Chapin adds that others have tinkered with Oklahoma! before. In 2010 and ’11, there were two overlapping revivals, also at either end of the country. At Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, artistic director Molly Smith helmed a staging with a Latino Curly and an African American Laurey. Around the same time, Portland Center Stage in Oregon mounted an Oklahoma! with an all-black cast (a version of that production, directed by PCS’s former a.d., Chris Coleman, is now running at his new home in Denver). Both were examples of not so much color-blind casting as color-conscious casting, introducing racial subtexts to the story for the Obama era.
But Rauch’s production does feel like a departure, Chapin concedes. “I just kept looking at it, thinking, man, you couldn’t have done this five years ago,” he marvels. “Where some places in the world are now with gender fluidity—and certainly Ashland is one of those places—audiences accept it, with its own nuances, and seem to go for it completely.”
I can attest to that audience enthusiasm. At a May matinee of the OSF Oklahoma!, the Angus Bowmer Theatre was packed with a mix of festival regulars and busloads of students. The sex-positive, giddily LGBTQ vibe was greeted with cheers and laughs from both demos. There was a palpable sense of excitement and sympathy from the crowd, watching Will (Jordan Barbour) and Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) sort out issues of trust and lust in their relationship. And when Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) wrapped Laurey (Royer Bockus) in her arms for a big smooch, the kids went nuts. When’s the last time you heard that about Rodgers and Hammerstein?
Odd that a show many consider a harmless chestnut should become a vehicle for radical dramaturgy. But for their time, Rodgers and Hammerstein were taking the biggest risk of their careers. Neither was young, or a showbiz tyro. They had known success and survived failure. They’d been chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, and were embarking on a new, untested collaboration. As Todd Purdum points out in his recent book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, even raising the then-low budget of $90,000 was a struggle, the incorporation of Agnes de Mille’s ballet choreography was acrimonious, and the entire project bucked many popular theatre trends of the day. Cynical, urbane titillation was the preferred mode on Broadway in 1943, not earnest prairie dramas about frontier folk in love.
What’s more, the team was determined to craft musical comedy driven by story and character, not formulaic chorus numbers or post-vaudeville specialty acts. It turns out that audiences in the dark days of World War II hungered for the soaring optimism of Oklahoma!. Judging from the teen whoops and hollers in Ashland, that appetite for uplift has not been sated.
Rauch dreamed up this version when he himself was a young man. “I was in my high school production of Oklahoma!, one of the most egregiously miscast Ali Hakims ever,” he recalls with a laugh. “It struck me that gender was, if not the last frontier, a place that classic musicals had not explored. And it came from feeling shut out as a gay kid, and a gay adult, from those stories that I love. I love classic musicals but did not feel my own story represented. And so I just began to fantasize and muse about it.”
In his research, Rauch discovered that Lynn Riggs, author of the play Green Grow the Lilacs, on which Hammerstein closely based the book, was gay and part Cherokee. Such facts emboldened him to unlock the racial and sexual diversity of the work.
Still, the director was not sanguine about realizing his vision. “I honestly thought that I would never live to see this in my lifetime,” Rauch admits. “I thought there was no way the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization would give this permission.” In 2016, Ted Chapin attended a staged reading of Rauch’s concept in Ashland, and moments after the final bow began sharing his notes. Rauch almost didn’t realize that his dream had been greenlit.
Fish also encountered the show as a young man—his parents would play the original cast album, and he attended the 1979 Broadway revival—but for the most part, his career has been more multimedia deconstruction than musical theatre.
“It’s hard for me to say where the idea came from,” he confesses. In 2007, when JoAnne Akalaitis was running the theatre program at Bard College, she asked Fish to direct students in a show of his choosing, and he blurted out Oklahoma!. “I wanted to think about it as a new kind of dinner theatre,” the director says. “Then I started to learn more about the show. I never really know going into a piece why I’m doing it. If I do, I probably shouldn’t be doing it.” Eventually, Fish came to realize it was “a story about the nature of community, and about the cost of forming a community, and issues of culpability.”
Speaking of guilt, Jud Fry is generally agreed to be the musical’s villain. He threatens Curly, forces a kiss on Laurey, and ends up threatening murder toward the heroes. In contemporary parlance, Jud is a sexually predatory, cis-het male with a porn addiction and anger-management issues.
Ashland’s Jud is appropriately brooding and dangerous, played by the handsome Michael Sharon as a damaged loner. Rauch and his crew wanted to create a theatrical world “that celebrates and honors difference,” but “we also didn’t want it to be a fantasy world where the shadows of transphobia and homophobia don’t exist.” Thus Jud embodies toxic masculinity, threatened by gender nonconformity and sexual difference.
“The audience will never know these rehearsal discussions, but I hope you feel them on some level,” Rauch continues. “For example: Why is Laurey living with Aunt Eller? It’s a question that the piece doesn’t address. I know for the actor playing Laurey, her trying to come to terms with her homosexuality is why she’s not living with her parents; that’s why she’s staying with her transgender aunt. So there are subliminal ways that we reflect the realities of the racist, homophobic, transphobic world that we live in—even with the main thrust being love and inclusion and acceptance.”
Conversely, Fish views Jud as “a person who’s turned into an outsider by the community. I guess I couldn’t find anything in the text to make me think that he was a villain.” As portrayed by Patrick Vaill, this Jud is good-looking and well dressed, but somehow cannot find acceptance. So is he a baddie or a scapegoat?
Musical choices are also starkly different between the two. The OSF version sounds traditional, the singing and playing comparable to what you’d see in any regional house or on Broadway. The show coming to St. Ann’s Warehouse, by contrast, has a stripped-down style, as if an indie roots band were covering the R&H score. And the vocal delivery is far from a flashy, applause-begging Broadway style.
“I wanted to have the piece move seamlessly from speaking to singing,” Fish explains. “So we took out a lot of those introductions that lead into a song, ‘Here’s a song coming!’ I was interested in the idea that the singing is a natural and necessary expression of what’s going on for the actor in that particular moment.” It’s not such a radical idea: In his way Fish is only intensifying the “integrated musical” experiment that made the original such a breakthrough.
Will either of these productions eventually bubble up to Broadway, which has not felt the wind sweeping down the plain since 2003? Chapin doesn’t want to play favorites.
“I always think, let’s keep the options open until it becomes clear to more than one person what should happen,” he says diplomatically. That said, Chapin confesses fondness for Rauch’s approach, calling it “very honorable to today.” Of course, in Trump’s anti-immigrant, #MeToo-mocking America, Fish’s unsettling approach may be equally relatable.
Ultimately we’re talking about two sides of the same buffalo nickel. You have the Oregon Oklahoma!: A community comes together even as it celebrates difference; wide open spaces will (eventually) be fenced in, but they still stir a song in your heart. And there’s the Brooklyn Oklahoma!: The community is closed in on itself and tough to navigate; can a social unit form without an enemy, without bloodshed?
Though coincidental, it’s perfect that these revivals are happening simultaneously. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s initial collaboration was always a story of insiders and outsiders, lovers and haters, and the tensions that forge loving connection while driving others apart. In the end, in tough times we best heed Aunt Eller’s stern advice to quarreling farmers and cowmen: “Territory folks should stick together/Territory folks should all be pals.”
David Cote is a journalist, playwright, and opera librettist. He currently writes for the Village Voice and other publications.