Seventy years ago today was the single most revolutionary moment in the history of American theatre, the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! That night, the world of musical theatre was instantly changed, in colossal ways, forever. Seeing Oklahoma!, three major hit-writers of the previous era, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, all had the same reaction. They felt the new-fangled musical play was not something they’d ever be able to write; they thought they were through. Luckily, a few years later, Porter and Berlin were convinced to give the new-style show a try, and each delivered their masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate and Annie Get Your Gun. Berlin had – and, perhaps, needed – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s help. Lorenz Hart was not so lucky: a matter of months after the revolution, he was dead.
There are those who don’t believe Oklahoma! was as important as I think it is. Revisionist historians point to some earlier shows, such as Show Boat (which also had book and lyrics by Hammerstein) and Porgy and Bess, as sharing some of the sea-changer’s qualities. I can see those similarities, but think of the earlier shows as sparks that failed to light the kindling. After Show Boat, there weren’t any other shows remotely like Show Boat, and Hammerstein went back to write frothy shows with less on their mind, as he had before. One, The Golden Dawn, is said to have a significantly less enlightened view about prejudice, but I haven’t seen it to confirm.
No show before Oklahoma! had billed itself as a “musical play” and that’s a key designation. In order to understand this, it’s necessary to comprehend what theatre was like before 1943. Over in “straight theatre,” in plays by the likes of O’Neill and Shaw, characters said whatever they said because they were motivated to do so, often a product of their psychological make-up. Good playwrights delineated characters, so they didn’t sound or react like one another. Subtext would often come into play. Cool stuff.
In musicals of the period, characters typically sounded the same, subtext was rarely employed, and illogical plot machinations and speeches seemed to exist just to set up the next song. Songs were the stars, then. It didn’t matter, to the authors, which character was singing them; the reasons for singing were comparatively unimportant. Now that audiences have experienced seventy years of well-wrought musical theatre, shows from the earlier time seem awfully flat. It’s exceedingly rare for a musical from the previous two decades to ever get performed in its original form. Anything Goes, for instance, has been thoroughly rewritten – one oft-performed version was co-written by one of the original librettists’ son. As horrified as I was that the recent revival of Porgy and Bess revised the 1935 text, I wasn’t surprised that producers thought it necessary.
In Oklahoma!, you can’t possibly move a song from one character to another. Laurie could never sing “I Cain’t Say No” and Will Parker couldn’t do “Lonely Room.” Sounds obvious, but, just a few years earlier, in Rodgers and Hart’s Babes In Arms, virtually any character could have sung “Where Or When.” What’s even more impressive is that the dialogue in the show’s book sounds a lot like plays of the time. Its grittiness matches Tobacco Road, a long-running hit back then. To some extent, Oklahoma! is about light subjects, like who’ll take a pretty girl to a dance, but Hammerstein saw to it that every line is properly motivated, grounded in reality, with psychological subtext.
In world theatre, I feel Bertolt Brecht is the last century’s most important figure. Indulge me for a moment as I look at this musical through a Brechtian prism. Oklahoma! is about a class conflict: there’s a rivalry between Curly, an attractive cowboy who rides up on a horse, and Jud, a hired hand who literally lives under the ground in a dug-out smokehouse. The more comic secondary triangle pits a cowboy who’s actually visited a big city with a charlatan traveling salesman. Class warfare, and its possible détente, is depicted in a song called “The Famer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.”
My historically-minded friend Jeffrey Sweet points out another political aspect. The Sooners are early settlers in the Wild West who need to prove to Washington that they’re not so wild, that they can follow the rule of law. So, in a long scene towards the end, the town elders take very seriously the procedures involved in trying a man for murder. After a successful demonstration they can all abide the law, they celebrate becoming a brand new state with the title song. This is more joyful than the happy resolution of either of the love triangles.
Enough talk of politics: let’s switch the subject to sex. Now, some people don’t believe Rodgers and Hammerstein come close to deserving an R rating, but, for sex and violence, Oklahoma! is remarkably racy. The heroine takes an hallucinogenic drug in order to make a decision. She has a sex dream, involving dancing whores who lift their skirts – which we see, since this is acted out in ballet – the product of her dirty mind. Jud Fry possesses what appears to be a kaleidoscope but, when you look through it, you see pictures of naked women. He hatches a plan to rig it with a hidden knife on a catch-spring, so that when his rival is looking through it, he can flip the catch and stab him in the eyeball. Yep, Rodgers and Hammerstein: all sweetness and light.
Four other qualities of Oklahoma!, alas, are no longer imitated by certain shows. First, think again on the old musical comedies and how they always began with a splashy chorus with dancing girls. Oklahoma! begins with an unattractive old dame churning butter in front of a flat of painted cornfields. The orchestra stops playing, and the first song, a solo waltz, is heard, at first, coming from an off-stage character singing a cappella. Can you see how revolutionary that was? One New York wag, catching the pre-Broadway tryout, quipped “No jokes, no legs, no chance!”
This new collaboration, of the incredibly successful composer Richard Rodgers and down-on-his-luck wordsmith Oscar Hammerstein, had the balls to go low-tech. Spectacle, in the form of sexy dancing girls or flashy sets: nowhere to be seen. Not true of a lot of shows today.
And whatever happened to subtext? That’s the worst devolution of all. In Oklahoma!’s principle love song, the characters don’t say “I love you.” Their subtext says it, and the audience understands. Writers today have characters say exactly what they’re thinking, as if subtext wasn’t valuable, wasn’t the very thing that makes theatre-going so interesting.
A word about Rodgers’ accomplishment: The situation in that first scene required the character to sing something that sounded like a folk song, and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” succeeds in feeling like a real folk song you might have heard in the territory around 1905. Perhaps inspired by the fact that he was collaborating with Agnes DeMille, the choreographer most famous for Rodeo, Rodgers serves up an energetic vamp for “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Or Nothing” that bears some resemblance to Aaron Copland’s depictions of the Wild West. The score is impressively free of anachronisms, and you know how I feel about composers who ignore the time and place settings of their shows.
Even closer to my heart is the belief that it’s a waste of everyone’s time to depict self-pity on stage. If your character pities herself, I’m not going to feel anything, because someone else (her) is already doing the pitying. For most of the years since Oklahoma! writers heeded these words from the heroine:
“Why should a woman who is healthy and strong blubber like a baby if her man goes away, a-weeping and a-wailing how he’s done her wrong?”
That’s one thing you’ll never hear me say; wish my colleagues felt the same.