Two friends and I were heading to New York City to see some Broadway plays, and the musical Oklahoma wasn’t even on my wish list–probably because I remembered the movie version. But one friend really wanted to see it. So it happened that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that wowed audiences and critics back in 1943 wowed me 76 years later.
The original Oklahoma was a smash hit on Broadway long before I was born, followed by a successful film version a dozen years later. Eventually I stumbled across the movie on TV sometime during my young adulthood. Kind of corny, I thought. That can’t be said of the newest Broadway version. And yet the story, the songs, and the dialogue are virtually the same as they were way back then, before the end of WWII. My new-age audience and I were seeing it post-several wars, post-the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., post-the Civil Rights Act, post-the internet’s debut, post-9/11, and post-the Great Recession that devastated so many Americans.
Leaving the Manhattan theatre on a cold November night in the year 2019, I couldn’t stop wondering: how can a musical that once seemed old and corny transform into something fresh, exciting and more-than-a-little dark? According to director Daniel Fish in a New Yorker interview last year, he wanted to emphasize the story’s realism. Re-reading the original script, it was “about trying to really hear it.”
Curly (a cowboy) and Jud (a hired farm hand) both want to take Laurey to the social later that evening. The big event is a dance/fundraiser for the new school house. It’s 1906 and Oklahoma is still a territory, although not for long. Statehood is only a year away, and this small community of farmers and cowboys is excited by what it could mean for them. So many opportunities. By the end of the play, however, Curly and Laurey are happily married, Jud is violently dead, and this small community of settlers is singing a reprise of “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’.”
This is the musical that filled Americans living in a war-torn world with a sense of hope? One and the same, my friends–with a few tweaks.
* There are different ways to sing a song. Laurey and Curly are in love, but a little too proud to admit it. When they sing and spark and flirt, it’s with a smoldering sexuality that certainly wasn’t in the movie version. Also, the 7-piece band on stage gives the songs a more contemporary Country Western feel without diminishing any of their appeal or beauty.
* Jud is a drifter who’s found work at the farm owned by Laurey’s Aunt Eller. Jud has a young man’s raging hormones and a boulder-size chip on his shoulder. Wherever he goes, he’s an outsider, but Laurey is kind to him, unlike most everyone he’s ever met. This Jud is played with a complexity that makes him more sympathetic, even though he’s still as dangerous as a cocked pistol.
* The costumes are Wild West-appropriate, but much more modern. Fitted denim jeans and knotted t-shirts; above-the-knee dresses with cowboy boots. Ado Annie, the lustful character who “cain’t say no,” wears clothes with her red bra straps showing. In this version, she’s confined to a wheelchair, but she rides the thing as if it’s a wild horse that’s not about to get the better of her. (The actress Ali Stroker won a Tony for her performance.)
* The stage is brightly lit most of the time, and long plywood tables hold crockpots cooking chili. (Darn good chili that is served to the audience during the intermission.) That and the fact the audience surrounds the stage in a giant U formation implies we’re all in this together. Several times the stage goes completely dark–and when it does, the mood turns sinister. Like when Curly confronts his romantic rival in the dark scary hovel where Jud lives. We only hear them at first; then we see their faces projected on the back wall barely an inch apart. Curly sings the song “Pore Jud is Daid,” in which he imagines his rival’s funeral. The original scene is performed in a more teasing humorous way, but here it’s threatening. There’s another scene where Jud catches up to Laurey at the dance: we hear–not see–Jud slobbering her with kisses before she breaks away in search of Curly, who seems oblivious to her terror and frightens her with some of his own rough kissing.
When Jud is killed near the end of the play, a federal marshall tries to insist on a courtroom trial, but everyone in the community brushes him off–even Aunt Eller, who up until now has been a voice of reason. While it’s clear that Jud did help provoke his own murder, it’s also clear that the man who pulled the trigger wasn’t entirely innocent. In a lawless land it might not matter, but Oklahoma stands on the verge of statehood.
Today the U.S. House of Representatives is drawing up articles of impeachment against President Trump. When he was elected in 2016, he was clearly a Washington outsider. (An outsider like Jud, except for his wealth and good opinion of himself.) To at least half the country, the President remains an unwelcome outsider. However, he’s about to face some very serious charges. Will he be judged on the facts during a senate trial, or will he be judged along party lines? The President deserves a fair trial just as American voters deserve to see and hear all the evidence. Do we want to live in the equivalent of a lawless territory, or do we want to live in a democracy where justice is supposed to be blind?
After returning from New York, I re-watched the 1955 movie version with my Oklahoma-loving friend. Our reaction to the film was the same: kind of corny. The new Broadway musical is far from corny, but sometimes corny is good. I actually do want to wake up in this country singing “Oh what a beautiful morning.” I’ll bet you do, too. Can we get there? That’s the grave challenge resting with all of us, not just the politicians in Washington.