Director Daniel Fish’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has developed a scandalous reputation on Broadway. While the production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical this June, the gritty take on the Golden Age classic has downright offended some of its viewers with its irreverence toward traditions surrounding the musical. Oscar Hammerstein II’s grandson called the show “a travesty”and said, “They [Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II] would be rolling in their graves if they saw this current production that defies what the words meant and what the songs represented.”
What words mean to a person or what songs represent to an audience, however, are slippery and changeable — even when those words and songs are as ingrained in canon as those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The freedom to interpret art with fresh eyes allowed Fish and his team to be accused of betraying Oklahoma! without changing a single word of its original script or lyrics.
If you’re upset by Fish’s production, isn’t that kind of the point? Despite the yummy chili and cornbread served at intermission, this Oklahoma! is not supposed to go down easy. Fish has uprooted a foundational American musical to expose its dark underbelly, and the disturbing truths festering there are not a pretty sight.
Oklahoma! is not a “sit back and relax” kind of show. A collection of guns hangs ominously on the white walls of Circle in the Square. The audience sits on three sides of the playing space and at onstage table seating (scenic design by Laura Jellinek). Much of the production is performed with the lights on, removing any darkness the audience could use to separate ourselves from the world of the play. We’re definitely a part of, and yet complicit in, whatever we witness.
Perhaps the biggest change to the original Oklahoma! material is the re-orchestration of the score by Daniel Kluger (music direction and additional vocal arrangements by Nathan Koci). The sound of the show has been transformed into something intimate and raw. The band sits on stage throughout the piece and interacts with the actors who sing with a rough, country twang, loud enough to compensate for the removal of a full Broadway chorus (another big change, and honestly, I don’t miss the ensemble for a second).
The story of Oklahoma! is simple: Curly McLain (understudy Denver Milord at the performance I attended), a charismatic and confident young man who sings in a velvety tenor and accompanies himself on the guitar, has his sights set on Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and wants her to be his date to the box social, although he and Laurey are in a Benedick-and-Beatrice-like battle as each attempts to appear less interested in the other. Upset with Curly, Laurey instead agrees to go to the box social with Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), the reclusive farmhand, despite the fear she feels around him.
On a basic level, Oklahoma! is about a girl trying to figure out what she wants. Immortalized by Shirley Jones in the film adaptation, Laurey traditionally is the picture of the Broadway ingenue: young and naive, singing in a saccharine soprano. Rebecca Naomi Jones’s pants-wearing Laurey has sass and edge, belting her songs as she longs for answers. The dream ballet which opens Act Two, rewired as contemporary performance art by John Heginbotham’s choreography and Kluger’s re-orchestrations, features only one dancer (understudy Demetia Hopkins-Greene at the production I saw) in a sequined shirt which reads “DREAM BABY DREAM” (costumes by Terese Wadden). She is a fantasy Laurey, free to explore her desires as her real-world counterpart is not.
(Did I understand the dream ballet? Nope, not much. Was I shocked or offended that Laurey’s opium-induced trip lacked clear narrative or structure? Not at all.)
Meanwhile, in the subplot, Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) is caught between two men of her own: her old beau Will Parker (James Davis) and the peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill). Annie is much happier with her love triangle than Laurey, so long as she gets a marriage out of it, and Stroker’s explosive performance of “I Cain’t Say No” arguably steals the show.
For all the controversy surrounding it, Oklahoma! does not really cross into the realm of “radical” until the second act. Other than some strong choices with lighting (by Scott Zielinksi) to show the hypnotic effect Curly has on Laurey, most of Act One is a stripped down, modern dress version of the original. Ali Hakim’s song “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!” and the scene before it buzz with uneasiness — you can hear it in the music — but the reality of the threatened violence has not sunk in yet.
The exception is the scene between Curly and Jud. Here, the theater is plunged into darkness, and we can only listen as Curly encourages Jud to hang himself. As the pair sings “Pore Jud Is Daid,” Curly’s manipulative song about how wonderful it would be for Jud if he committed suicide, a close-up live shot of Jud’s face is projected on the wall in black and white. We see the smile on his lips and the tears on his cheeks as Jud imagines people caring about him at his funeral. The shot widens to include Curly, his face close to Jud’s as if he is breathing poison into the other man’s mouth. Jud, like Laurey, can fall under the spell of Curly’s siren song.
It appalls me that audiences ever supported Curly after this scene, no matter how villainous a production makes Jud out to be.
In this production, Fish and Vaill have no interest in presenting Jud as a caricature of evil. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for him — not only as Curly goads him into considering suicide but also during the auction in Act Two.
At the auction, the men try to outbid each other to purchase “hampers,” baskets of food prepared by the women. (These baskets are purposely absent from stage, emphasizing the auction’s function as a display of masculine domination; the men appear to buy the women, not the food they have cooked.) Jud willingly gives up everything he has for a chance to win Laurey’s hamper only to be outdone at the last minute by Curly, aided by a community which would much prefer Jud remain an outsider.
That isn’t to say Jud is completely innocent. We can understand why Laurey fears him, particularly after an uncomfortable encounter between the pair in Act Two (also staged in complete darkness) in which we hear Jud begin to take off his belt before Laurey breaks away. Jud is no hero.
But in this Oklahoma!, no one is.
Especially not Curly, who normally gets treated like one. When Curly kills Jud, it is with a gun, not a knife as originally staged, a choice which reflects a specific plague afflicting America and darkly recasts the moments of threatened gun violence throughout the musical that the audience still tries to laugh off. Jud dies defenseless and unarmed, surrounded by bystanders who do nothing — including the audience.
The minutes which follow, led by a now-sinister Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), justify the existence of this version of Oklahoma!. Curly— privileged in so many ways— gets away with murder without so much as a slap on the wrist. As the company breaks out into what is meant to be a joyous reprise of “Oklahoma!,” we feel like Laurey, stunned and reeling from what she has witnessed, able only to thrash her body to the music and look soundlessly and searchingly at the audience as the cast sings around her.
As an audience, we are forced into the role of spectators from the beginning. We cannot control what we witness. But when we laugh at a character threatening to shoot someone, when we stand and clap cheerfully at the end of the show, the line blurs between when we are celebrating the theatrical creation and when we are condoning the actions it depicts.
Our audience response says something about what— and who— we value in our community. For seventy-five years, we accepted that our community values Curlys and not Juds. Fish’s production peels away the coating of sugar on Oklahoma! and challenges us to reconsider exactly what we’re perpetuating in accepting that tradition of this story.
As much work as the cast and crew of Oklahoma! have done, they have not created the darkness driving their production. That was birthed a long time ago, even if it was played for laughs and made to look like simple conflicts between Good and Evil. It was always there, part of a deep, noxious web of violence, prejudice, and fear embedded in our culture, stretching far beyond the theater and always bubbling just below the surface. Eight times a week, this production of Oklahoma! forces its audience to face it, if only for three hours. That makes some people uncomfortable.
Good. We should be.