Theater archives

Oklahoma, Oy Vey!


There’s a dull, rusty haze on the meadow, and the drabness of the resulting picture, which will probably leave a lot of people unhappy, has only one virtue: It marks the end of a decades-long misunderstanding. Oklahoma! opened in 1943, when the musical theater, like the world around it, was in a state of misery, confusion, and change. Because Oklahoma! was a coherent work of its kind, and because its brighter sentiments were just the ones the American public desperately needed, it got loaded down with an aesthetic and moral cargo that far outweighed its actual virtues, considerable as those are. It had to be precedent-shattering; it had to be the birth of the modern musical; it had to sum up the American spirit and the American character; it had to be a deep and meaningful masterpiece. Finally, because history outpaced the optimism invested in Oklahoma!, the show has had to submit to being turned inside out and reinterpreted as a “dark” work, its brightness withered like rust-afflicted wheat. And through this whole six-decade process, from the work’s mighty inflation to the moment of its giant takedown, in the background you could always hear the soft voices of people who merely loved Oklahoma! for what it was, without pretensions, murmuring quietly, “It’s only a musical.”

What a lovely world this would be if the people who run it would listen to those soft-spoken voices. But they are very hard to hear in the vast, overmiked canyons of the Gershwin Theatre, to which Cameron Mackintosh has imported the Royal National Theatre’s production of Oklahoma! The importation per se isn’t the problem: The Americans involved miss their targets about as often as our British guests; we could certainly make—and have made—productions as dull and pompous as this without outside help. Rodgers and Hammerstein, as their work evolved, may have started to believe their own publicity a little, and have edged slightly toward self-importance, but they were always canny showmen, and never lost sight of the notion that the audience was there to enjoy itself. It’s important to stress that this enjoyment has nothing to do with questions of serious versus frivolous, or “integrated” versus fragmented work. The key factor is to tell the story in a way that holds the audience’s interest, to grip their attention between your start and end points. That’s entertainment—from the French entretenir, “to hold between.”

Lynn Riggs, who wrote the play from which Oklahoma! is derived, did not tell stories in a way that held audiences to any great extent. When Rodgers and Hammerstein took up his Green Grow the Lilacs, part of Broadway’s puzzlement was that two such eminent hit-makers would join forces over such an evident flop. And nobody has shown, in the decades since, that this or any of Riggs’s other honorable, mediocre efforts would make him anything more than a footnote in the history of the musical theater. What the songwriters grasped was the chance to turn a fairly banal piece of Southwestern sentimental naturalism into a glamorous New York escape. With the risk-taking help of Rouben Mamoulian and Agnes de Mille, they elevated the escape to the level of a folktale. But the seeming—I said seeming—artlessness of their songs was essential to that process; they left the elevation to their director and choreographer.

Mamoulian, who had worked separately with both Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as with Oklahoma!‘s original producers, the Theatre Guild, was famous for his skill with spectacle and atmospheric detail, along with the brilliant sense of movement still on view in his innovative early talkies. Equally at home in opera and film, he had joined Hammerstein for a trial run at musicalizing rural life in the Irene Dunne movie High, Wide, and Handsome (1937). Cowboys and barn-dance imagery were a commonplace in de Mille’s home company, Ballet Theatre (now ABT), for which Rodgers had composed Ghost Town in 1939, and for which de Mille herself, shortly before Oklahoma!, had choreographed Copland’s Rodeo.

Curly the cowhand and Laurey the orphaned farm girl love each other, but neither is willing to admit this emotional weakness and give the other the upper hand. Jud the farmhand, a mentally disturbed obsessive, takes advantage of their indecision to come between them, leading to a bad dream for Laurey (the famous ballet that closes Act I), a discomfiting scene between her and Jud, and finally to the fatal knife fight that mars Curly and Laurey’s wedding night. Apart from the ballet and the song in which Jud reveals his character (as Hammerstein said, “to scare the hell out of everybody in the audience”), none of this “disturbing” material is set to music. Putting the work’s elements in gratifying balance, not pushing some imaginary aesthetic envelope, was the goal of everyone involved. The resulting success proved that they knew what they were doing. Though a little too bucolic for some people, and a tad too synthetic for others, Oklahoma! when well done hits fairly vast audiences right where they live, its artful mix of humble and easily accessible elements offering a theatrical equivalent for American democracy: maybe not truly deep or flawless, but certainly a greatest good for the greatest number.

That Oklahoma! should be such a little wonder wasn’t enough for the human propensity to ecstasize and theorize out of proportion. The real tribute to the show’s quality is that we can still bear it at all, after six decades of hot air about it. What we need is some enterprising soul willing and able to recapture the original’s crafty straightforwardness and good sense, but no such luck. Instead, like the other Little Wonder that Will Parker bought in Kansas City, Oklahoma! now has to possess hidden violence. So we get Trevor Nunn’s production, in which the book is lingered over, while the songs are either muttered down into naturalistic expostulation or blown up into operatic reverence. The last section of “Lonely Room,” marked “Moderato” in the score, is taken so slowly it feels longer than the Clock Scene in Boris Godunov—and the title role in Boris, a haunted, misunderstood monarch, is exactly what Shuler Hensley seems to be playing as Jud. The tragic hero of Nunn’s production, he’s granted much more sympathy than either Patrick Wilson’s brash Curly or Josefina Gabrielle’s dour, snippy frump of a Laurey, who doesn’t bother to change out of her overalls even when her girlfriends arrive in their party dresses.

Almost everything in this Oklahoma! is similarly misguided, the fake realism of those with no sense of reality, the fake artsiness of those with no artistic sense. Truth equals glumness, comedy equals constant yelling on one note, theatricality means destroying any hint of the era’s charm, and naturalism means avoiding all audience contact while singing. Wilson is likable despite the extra effort he needs to fill the vacuum left by Gabrielle, and Justin Bohon’s Will is an amiably feisty strutting bantam; I don’t mind Andrea Martin’s slightly citified Aunt Eller, and rather like Michael McCarty’s Andrew Carnes. And it would be worthwhile to see Hensley someday play the role, and not the symbolic essence of something irrelevant to it. But that concludes the list of this production’s meager assets: The rest is an ugly mishap, from the dust-bowl scenery and flaccid staging to the hooting orchestra that, upstage of the singers, is often not with their (mostly inadequate) voices. As for the replacement of de Mille’s choreography by Susan Stroman’s, even if Mount Rushmore gives you the giggles, you wouldn’t want to see it replaced by a trailer park.

But then, what’s old and beautiful tends to be replaced by what’s new and crude. If not the moral, that’s at least the arc graphed by the three interlocking narratives in Horton Foote’s The Carpetbagger’s Children, set as usual in Foote’s fictive town of Harrison, Texas, and dealing with the three surviving daughters of a Union soldier who settled in as the local tax collector after the Civil War and became the richest local landowner. Narrating to us for no particular reason, these three sisters recount their differing fates, different versions of their father’s past and their upbringing, differing scraps of family and town lore; occasionally they make dialogic appearances in each other’s soliloquies. Short (85 minutes) and appealingly acted, the piece offers the same enigmatic fun as going through a trunkful of somebody else’s old papers in the attic—as, indeed, one of the sisters has done just before the action starts. Foote’s longer plays often seem hollow and static to me; this one, pungently terse and (for all its seeming digressions) tightly focused, makes its point elegantly. Jean Stapleton as the saddest of the sisters and the author’s daughter Hallie as the spunkiest do solid work; Roberta Maxwell, as bossy Cornelia, head of the clan, is sheer magic—and turns out to have a lovelier soprano voice than any you’ll hear in Oklahoma!