The following contains spoilers from the Broadway musical revival “Oklahoma!,” currently on a national tour.
The latest Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!,” now wrapping its yearlong national tour, generally leaves theatergoers in adoration, awe, anger or confusion. Some performances of the Tony-winning production have continued amid clamorous walkouts or loud booing; one ended with a patron running from their seat and vomiting at a volume clearly audible to the actors.
“I distinctly remember bowing while an older white man was frowning and waving with both his thumbs down from directly in front of me in the front row,” lead actress Sasha Hutchings, who stars as Laurey, tells The Times. “I know this show can be jarring and disorienting, especially for those who are very tied to what this piece stands for in their minds. But I trust this piece and I trust this version, and even when there’s a negative reaction, it’s hopefully productive. That guy, something happened with him; he’s not gonna forget this, this is not gonna leave him quickly.”
It’s rare that any roadshow, even anecdotally, incites such notable responses (one Times reader called it “shocking, destructive and an affront to the intention of the creators of the musical in 1943″). But then again, this is “Oklahoma!,” the widely beloved Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II collaboration that became Broadway’s first blockbuster and launched a golden age of musical theater. “[It’s] an ingenious potpourri of entertainment,” wrote The Times’ Edwin Schallert of a 1946 performance. “It is so exceptional and in a sense unanalyzable.”
With its seemingly lighthearted plot, crowd-pleasing comedy and lively musical numbers, “Oklahoma!” itself has become synonymous with the romanticized, ahistorical, idealistic American identity it wrestles with in the text. That’s largely due to the 1955 film adaptation, notes Times critic Charles McNulty: “The vision of America emanating from the big screen, with its glistening cornfields and folksy goodness and simplicity, was immediately incorporated into a nation’s self-esteem. ‘Oklahoma!’ is not just a musical but a cornerstone of the American myth.”
It’s understandably surprising that a new version of a work so regularly performed in schools and community playhouses is being described as “edgy,” “dark” and “terrifying,” and slanged as “Woke-lahoma,” “Sexy Oklahoma” and “the Oklahoma! that f—.” Director Daniel Fish didn’t aim for such adjectives and nicknames when he initially staged a stripped-down rendition with Bard College students in 2007. The experiment — which then developed into a fully-staged production at Bard in 2015, an off-Broadway run in 2018 and a Broadway transfer in 2019 — laid bare the text’s sexual tension, toxic masculinity and America’s genocidal means-to-an-end methodology.
“The truth is, it was an instinct or a whim — something in me said, ‘I want to do this,’” he recalls of first selecting the piece. “I think I went into it thinking, ‘I kind of know the show,’ and then I got into it and realized, ‘No, I don’t know the show at all.’ It’s a brilliant piece of writing — there’s a layered and complicated story that I didn’t know was there about the nature of community, the role of the outsider and a miscarriage of justice. When I looked at that [trial in the] last scene, I definitely said, ‘Wait a minute. What the f— is this?’”
Fish worked closely on the iconoclastic revival with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which “had some questions and concerns, but they were never prescriptive, it was always a conversation.” Without changing any of the lyrics and adjusting only a few lines, Fish’s bold reimagining — set in a gun-covered community hall and featuring a bluegrass band — reframes many of the show’s oft-sentimentalized linchpins.
Is the central conflict really a “love triangle” if the coveted farm girl Laurey — a woman with no options in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906 — must choose between the handsy cowboy Curly or the stalkerous farmhand Jud? Is it that funny when Curly tries to convince Jud to kill himself so he can date Laurey by default, and is it that romantic when they both bid everything they have to “win” her in an auction? And in the end, who is really responsible for Jud’s death?
Numerous subreddit threads have debated that last question, as previous stagings have presented the scene as a clear victory over a villain. Its stage directions originally describe Jud as falling on his own knife, “which is exactly what is happening” in the revival, says Fish of Jud, who now puts the gun into Curly’s hand, takes a slight step toward him and slowly lays down upon getting shot by him. “I love that I’ve heard so many different interpretations, but to me, it’s a suicide in which he forces everyone else to be involved.”
Fish’s decision to slow down the subsequent “trial” makes the community’s spontaneous and swift exoneration of the blood-covered Curly all the more sinister — a baffling choice for fans of earlier versions. “All those lines are normally played for laughs,” explains Barbara Walsh, who began her career with an “Oklahoma!” tour and now plays Aunt Eller. “But everyone saw this crime happen and no one is saying anything, we’re keeping down what we know to be true. So what Daniel has done is expose the flaws and the humanity, or lack thereof, of these people.”
All of the characters, each in varying states of disbelief and distress about what they’ve collectively done, then launch into the famed “Oklahoma!” song, during which many audience members usually smile, clap and sing along. “When I first saw that happening, I was really disturbed,” Fish says. “And then it became so interesting that people would do that after the scene that just transpired. That’s the world that we live in.”
This was particularly true when the tour stopped in Oklahoma City, where its titular tune is the state song. “We could see some people stop clapping, like ‘maybe I shouldn’t,’ but towards the end of the song, they were like, ‘We see what crazy thing has happened, we don’t care, we’re gonna keep going anyway,’ and then they’d start again,” says Ugo Chukwu, who plays Cord. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s how it is.’”
Touring “Oklahoma!” — which closes at the Ahmanson Theatre this weekend and will open on the West End next year — meant making compromises, like retooling the in-the-round blocking for proscenium stages and realizing the seven-piece band’s amplified sound in much larger venues. Regional presenters strongly called for shortened dream ballet, which illustrates Laurey’s pull between Curly and Jud. “There was a fear that audiences in smaller cities might not be able to take it, that it would be too weird for them,” Fish says. “That irks me, because audiences are often smarter and more game than we give them credit for.”
Well, most audiences, that is. Sprinkled among the production’s glowing reviews and standing ovations are critics who say it “wreaks havoc on a musical theater classic” and ticket holders who leave at intermission. Fish doesn’t care if theatergoers don’t “get” it (what frustrates him more is when the piece is distorted with erroneous marketing descriptions or that “Late Late Show With James Corden” bit, which “doesn’t represent the show at all.”). But some of that negativity — in print, on message boards, on social media, in person — has taken its toll on the cast.
“I didn’t do this show so that people would stand up and clap and love it every single time,” Hutchings says. “But at the end of the day, I’m still a human, and I’m onstage mining myself to give you the most honest performance I can. It’s very painful when it feels like someone is meeting me with that kind of rejection or disdain.”
Such discomforts might be growing pains. “The theater has always been accessible and available to the same group of people, and has been, for the most part, a safe space for these viewers,” says Sis, who plays Ado Annie. “I think these older white folks are getting the notion that theater is changing, and there are lots of different ways that a work can live.
“It’s been interesting to watch Daniel, this older white man, take this piece that has served his community well and turn it against them like a gun,” she adds. “All we can do is perform what we’ve created together and say, ‘This is what ‘Oklahoma!’ has really been about, versus what y’all have created in your heads. You can take it or leave it, we get paid regardless.’”