When planning this production of Oklahoma! I was excited by the prospect of working on the show for two reasons. One is that many people, both young and old, hold Oklahoma! to be their favourite musical. The other is the label it has as being significant in musical theatre, the ‘first’ show to innovatively combine story, music and dance into a cohesive whole and set the tone and style for musicals to come in the years ahead.
On first look, there is nothing particularly ‘different’ about Oklahoma! It’s a straightforward romantic period musical with a soprano heroine and a baritone hero, a frivolous female friend and her comic partners, an occasional threatening villain and a story of love, pride and jealousy with songs and dances to fit.
The challenge, as I saw it, was to take a long show with quite a slight story and make it appealing to a modern audience, who are used to the emotional depth and slick pace of more recent musical theatre and at the same time meet the expectations of the show’s traditional theatre audience, whilst keeping it fresh.
One way we have done this is to approach the show as being character driven and set in a real place and time. The performers have worked really hard to bring their roles to life and combine the period dialogue with the emotions of real people. Based on a play, Oklahoma! is lucky to have some wonderful dialogue sections alongside songs where the actors can really explore their characters’ feelings of love, fear and hope as well as the emotional impact of hard frontier life.
We’ve also tried to create a look that feels right. Our stylised setting, costume and naturalistic hair design is not traditional ‘musical theatre pretty’, but hopefully works much better and is more fitting for the period and the strong people who really worked hard to make the best of this tough life in mid-west America at this historic time.
For the time it was written, Oklahoma! has moments which are remarkably ‘earthy’. Sexual desire as a motivator for relationships rather than more ‘noble’ love are present both in comic and more dark and obsessive ways. We’ve embraced this aspect too, which again makes the show feel much more modern than its age suggests.
I also felt that, at its heart, Oklahoma! is about the youthful energy and optimism for the future as well as the deep feelings of love and desire, both requited and unrequited that we all associate with being in our teens or early 20s. Often productions miss this by having actors who look and feel far too mature in the lead roles. We are very lucky to have an astonishingly talented young cast who properly inhabit these characters and bring them to life in a way which looks and feels right with the things they say and the emotional journey they go on.
Another aspect we’ve really tried to bring out is the humour. There are some wonderfully comic characters, songs and dialogue written into the show. But we’ve also worked hard to ‘find’ humour in other parts of the script so that there is a winning mixture of romance and comedy, even in the darker elements of the story.
Our choreographer, Gareth Ridge, has created routines and movement which perfectly reflect this ‘fresh’ ethos with dance that feels both fitting and contemporary. From a farmer’s hoedown to a dream portrayed as ballet, Gareth has done some amazing work with the cast producing memorable and entertaining moments of physical theatre, beautiful dance and comic movement which help complete the story telling.
In the end though, one can’t deny that the ‘good-old-days’ appeal and success of Oklahoma! lies in the supply of a long list of some truly enjoyable, unforgettable songs and our Musical Director, Allison Fisher, has worked hard to bring everything out of them. Our hero and heroine, Curly and Laurey are given some delightful and ingenious numbers – “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”, “People Will Say We’re In Love”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “Out Of My Dreams”. At the same time their comedic counterparts have some top-notch comic pieces that range from Annie’s wide-eyed justification for near nymphomania – “I Can’t Say No” to Will’s period-topical description of the big city – “Kansas City” and his show-down with his girl – “All or Nuthin’”.
“The Farmer and the Cowman” gives us an excuse for a lively hoedown and, of course, the iconic massed hailing of the new state and show title “Oklahoma!” provides a truly ringing, feel-good, climax to this happy romantic musical hit which continues to endure and appeal to audiences as much today as it has for the last 76 years!