Oklahoma! Is a Perfect Example of How Theatre Revivals Can Succeed in the Modern Era
Oklahoma! Wokelahoma! My Heart-Lahoma!
Broadway’s Oklahoma! revival does what many revivals fail at: It points out the problems within the original story without changing a single word. When it comes to musical theater, I have a lot of opinions, mainly because I spent a good portion of my life studying it and understanding its nuances. What I came to realize is that I hate classical musical theater, meaning 90% of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, and anything that is extremely sexist in tone and story.
To quote Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a’changing,” which means that I, as an audience member, do not like sitting through shows that continue to spread the message that women are “less than” or that we’re “shrill” and difficult to handle. If you watch any kind of “classic” musical, there’s an undertone of just that kind of story.
I remember seeing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and I was floored by the lack of change in their message, and that was back in 2011. Since then, we still haven’t changed that much. That was, until, we got Oklahoma!
Performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse before making its way to Broadway, the show doesn’t change a word; all it does is find a way to interpret these iconic characters in a new way that doesn’t make their actions so questionable. For those who don’t remember the ways of Oklahoma!, here is the briefest of overviews: In 1906 Oklahoma Territory, cowboy Curly loves farm girl Laurey; Laurey is desired by both farmand Jud and Curly, but really loves Curly; the men are terrible; and Laurey marries Curly.
Now, there’s a lot more to the show than that, but every version of Oklahoma! in the past has made it seem as if Curly Mclain is the kind of character we should want to end up with. Don’t get me wrong—looks-wise, I’m right there. A tall man with nice jeans and curly hair? Yes, please. But then Curly opens his mouth and is an asshole, and all that attraction goes right out the window.
I’m supposed to like this man who basically tells Laurey she’ll marry him and, because it’s before the state of Oklahoma was even part of the United States, she agrees? It makes me (a) hate these characters and (b) not care that Jud dies. Oh, right, should we get into Jud? The creepy man with porn in his cave dwelling, who Laurey uses to make Curly jealous, and who Curly tells to kill himself?
To be fair, in almost every other version of Oklahoma!, Jud is portrayed as a villain to make Curly look better. But then comes what is affectionately known as “Wokelahoma!”—the revival that gave me everything I’ve ever wanted out of a revival and so much more. Here’s the thing about revivals: If you’re not saying anything new with them, why even bother? Sure, we recognize that there are problematic musicals out there, but just recognizing those problems amongst ourselves doesn’t mean we should bring them back in the modern age, unchanged.
Let’s examine, for a moment, Curly Mclain. In every version of Oklahoma! prior to this revival, Curly is depicted as a hero. A man who knows he wants Laurey and is overly confident in the knowledge that he is going to get her. I imagine him as basically the musical theater Gaston that everyone loves. So when you compare that Curly to Damon Daunno’s Curly, they are extremely different, because Daunno shows us that Curly is using a facade of confidence to hide the fact that he doesn’t know how to succeed in this rural world.
Then, there’s Jud. Jud Fry has always been a villain. In fact, when I was talking to a coworker about this piece and saying how both Curly and Jud were more complex in this production, he said to me, “But Curly is the hero and Jud is the bad guy, right?” which, yes, I guess used to be true. But this production shows that Jud is just a different version of toxic masculinity than Curly, both cut from a cloth that taught men that they had the right to women. This production of Oklahoma! does is give Laurey agency in that, given a different state of the world, she wouldn’t choose either of these men.
We see Curly’s struggle with his feelings for Laurey and his wavering confidence, leading to him making terrible decisions in regards to Jud and his career. Laurey, who goes back and forth between the two, can’t decide what she wants or why she has to be in love with either man.
When my friends told me to go to Oklahoma!, I was hesitant, but nevertheless, I went. The brilliance is, as I said, not a word is changed, but these actors and the direction from Daniel Fish take Curly, Laurey, Jud, and the rest of the characters from this town in Oklahoma and make them into their complicated bits and pieces.
With the catchphrase “This Oklahoma! fucks,” the show has become a favorite among fans and has managed to change how I feel about revivals all within the same breath. It all stems from the idea that these are flawed characters, and no one is a hero. If you change the way we view Curly and Jud, you change the way we see the entire show, and the way this version of Oklahoma! tells it makes it so much more than what we had before.
Starring Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Ali Stroker, Patrick Vaill, and a stellar cast, Oklahoma! is truly changing the way we should look at our musical theater. Starting with “Oh What A Beautiful Morning,” the show opens in a world where rules barely apply.
But where the revival begins its switch is when we see Curly try to woo Laurey, questioning her feelings for him and losing his confidence in ways throughout their courtship. “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” is the first in a series of songs that focus on the attraction that Laurey and Curly have for one another. Turning a traditional musical theater song that is often upbeat and cocky and turning it into a sexy flirtation is honestly one of the best pieces of theater I have ever seen.
If you look at this version of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and compare it to the cocky Curly of Hugh Jackman’s Oklahoma!, the sultry aspect is gone and is, instead, replaced with a man who doesn’t care what Laurey wants, only his desires.
The show continues to take songs that are iconic for their “love story” and make them about the flirtation that Laurey and Curly have. Because, no matter how we view their love, it is a flirtation that, because of their circumstance, instantly manifests into a marriage.
As we saw at the Tony Awards performance, Curly, Jud, and Laurey are not the only characters to have a change to their story. Ado Annie (portrayed Ali Stroker) embraces her sexuality and her attraction to men in the new revival, happy in her desire for both Ali Hakim and Will Parker and willing to love them both for whatever reasons.
But the most exciting part comes at the end of the show, as each character lets out their aggression and shows the trapped feelings they have over their circumstances. It wasn’t a time in which any of us would want to live, and Laurey, while struggling with her feelings, is a woman who really didn’t have a choice in her own future.
What isn’t online (and shouldn’t be, you just have to experience it for yourself) is the dream ballet. A moment in the show that almost reminded me of the scene from Us where the tethered is dancing with their human counterpart because she’s so trapped in her own thoughts and feelings in a world that won’t let her make her own decisions. Laurey isn’t a character we should want to be because she’s a product of a time period we struggled to get out of.
At the end of the day, though, Oklahoma! gives us so much to think about in regards to our own world, our love of classic musicals, and our thoughts on relationships without changing a single word of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production.
If I could inject Oklahoma! into my veins and go every night to the Circle in the Square theater, I would. I’d lose myself to the brilliance of this revival, but instead of emptying my wallet, I’ll live with the knowledge that Oklahoma! exists and pray that all revivals take note of what we should be doing with our theater.
(image: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
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