Friday, November 4, 2022

Oklahoma! vs. Woke-lahoma! (The Traditionalist and the Avant-Garde Should Be Friends)

 Here in L.A. the recent talk of the town was the edgy new production of an old war-horse that moved from Broadway to the Ahmanson Theatre. Oklahoma!, which launched the musical partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, premiered on Broadway in 1943. It thrilled audiences with its tuneful songs (“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “People Will Say We’re in Love”) and its hearty dose of Americana. Up until Oklahoma!, hit Broadway musicals were usually loosely assembled collections of musical numbers featuring tuxedo-clad men, beautiful chorus girls, and snappy repartee. Oklahoma! was not the first Broadway hit to delve more deeply into characterization and social commentary. (Show Boat, which dealt boldly with race relations, had been launched back in 1927.) But Oklahoma!’s homespun settings, and its songs written to define character and advance the drama, seemed a fresh new approach during the war years. The show, performed not by Broadway stars but by singers capable of exuding dramatic power, won a special Pulitzer Prize, as well as the hearts of audiences worldwide.

 Today we hardly see what the fuss was about.  It’s easy to dismiss as corny a plot that hinges on which swain will buy a pretty girl’s picnic hamper at their town’s box social. And even some of the genuine innovations now seem old-fashioned. For instance, there’s that dream ballet in which a stand-in for the show’s leading lady dances out her romantic uncertainties through Agnes de Mille’s artsy choreography.

 The dramatic ambitions of Hammerstein’s book hinge on the show’s strangest element, the handling of a character named Jud Fry. He’s a hired hand with a yen for Laurey, who’s clearly much more interested in a rakish cowboy named Curly. Scruffy and taciturn, with a taste for pornography, Jud is no one’s dream date. He’s treated with contempt by Curly (who encourages him to kill himself), and sneered at by everyone else. The new production that picked up Tony Awards in 2019 leans into the mystery of Jud, and why Laurey allows him to drive her to that box social. The whole section of the show involving Jud becomes intense and steamy, complete with a psychosexual dream ballet that is hardly as genteel as Agnes de Mille’s. And the interracial cast in the touring production features a very large transexual woman grotesquely playing a flirtatious role usually inhabited by someone petite and cute. At the performance I saw, this production was far too “woke” for most of the audience to tolerate.      

 Which brings me to the Hollywood version from 1955. After seeing Woke-lahoma! on the Ahmanson stage,  I was glad to turn to a more traditional version, with the appealing Gordon MacRae as Curly, the lovely Shirley Jones making her film debut as Laurey, and other Hollywood musical stalwarts in the cast. The de Mille ballet remains excessive, featuring the dream-Laurey psychologically shaken by seeing a leering Jud in the company of some racy painted ladies. And some new histrionics are added, like Laurie pushing Jud out of his wagon when he tries to kiss her, and then Jud viciously setting fire to a haystack in an act of revenge. In this film, Jud is played by Rod Steiger. I hear Marlon Brando was considered for the role, and his brooding handsomeness might have helped explain the attraction/repulsion Laurey is supposed to be feeling. But who’d be tempted to go astray with as stolid a guy as Steiger? This casting  just confirms the show’s basic contradictions. Rodgers and Hammerstein would try again to balance romantic fun with sexual tension in their next show, the brilliant Carousel.  


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thank you!

    1. I don't know who you are, Anonymous (though your name DOES get around), but I love you!