It’s September 1st! The end of summer is the start of Paramount’s Broadway Series and the beginning of rehearsals. We are in our second full week of rehearsal for Oklahoma!, and we are all a little startled at the progress we’ve made so quickly. There is a tremendous energy driving the work; our leading actors’ singing, emotionally rich and beautiful with the ensemble sound lifting exquisite harmonies to the heavens, each individual present and alive and filling our rehearsal room, absolutely transporting us into the world of a distant time and place. Music Director Tom Vendafreddo is making magic, and Choreographer Katie Spelman is lifting the dance in this work to a new level of excitement, raising stakes, creating heat, quickening the pulse, grabbing the viewer unable to resist being drawn into what is at once robust, muscular, lyrically refined and dramatic.
To give you a preview of the complexities beneath the surface of our story found in doing research and digging into the play, here are my Director’s Notes just completed for the Playbill that I’d like to share with you:
“No legs, no jokes, no chance.” This phrase has become part of the mythology of Oklahoma! and is reported to have appeared in Walter Winchell’s column after his “Gal Friday” scooped the show in New Haven before its Broadway premiere in 1943.
“And now, no tickets!” was Richard Rodgers giddy comeback as the show went on to garner a Pulitzer Prize and run five years in New York, three years in London, and have a ten-year, non-stop U.S. national tour with companies also in Australia and South Africa. After the 1955 film version starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, the show’s legacy continues to this day, receiving over 600 productions a year. Composer Rodgers and librettist/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II made a huge hit with this, their first collaboration, and together went on to become musical theatre giants dominating Broadway for the next twenty years with shows like Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.
A dense, intriguing mythology is also layered beneath the surface of this story adapted from Lynn Riggs’ 1930’s play Green Grow the Lilacs, named for a folk song of the same name. It is set in 1907 in Indian Territory, which will soon become the state of Oklahoma. The Choctaw Indians named this land with the words okla and humma, meaning “red people,” yet none appear in this play. Learning that playwright Riggs was part Cherokee and gay, one can hear his voice subliminally speaking through his characters of a troubled childhood and, as an adult, of the outcast wanting desperately to belong and find his place in the world. Subterranean to the magnificence of the glorious score of Oklahoma! and its frontier love story is the folklore of high stakes struggles to belong and not be the outsider, the misfit, the other. Laurey Williams carries herself differently from other young women. She is orphaned and yet a land owner, whereas the other girls come with mothers, fathers… and dowries. Cowboys like Curly McLain have their eyes on farm girls. Women relinquish all property rights when they marry. Laurey’s apprehension in choosing a husband, giving her land and herself to the right man – loving, ready and responsible – is compounded by how long she can put this off and still belong to her community. Curly drifts from job to job, owning little and sleeping under nothing but the stars. Marrying the right girl will put a roof over his head. How can he join the newly forming society if he doesn’t get serious about finding a wife? And there’s Jud Fry, a hired farm hand of no status, who bunks in a smokehouse. Is it a random writer’s choice that the loner’s last name is other than “Williams,” “McLain,” or as with Aunt Eller, “Murphy” and that “Fry” connotes “fire” and Jud’s threat to burn down the farm? Winsome Will Parker’s fiancée, Ado Annie, finds her own mind at odds with the proper, good-girl image of the times. Ali Hakim is a traveling salesman, the Persian peddler, who doesn’t fit in anywhere as he negotiates and navigates from town to town. Everyone, it seems, wants to fit in and belong in the new nation expanding its borders. Just as many among us sitting right here feel like misfits at times, out of place in our own lives.
What you are about to see is one of the most resplendent works ever created for the musical theatre, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! This Paramount production is yours to keep. We welcome you and thank you for being here.
Love & thanks,