First person: Thoughts on ‘Oklahoma!’ – a radical production with Jewish roots

 

It may not seem like it, but the radical LGBTQ production of “Oklahoma!” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has radical Jewish roots that go all the way back to the show’s original production back in 1943.

The Oregon production, about two romances in a world of farmers and cowboys in 1906 Oklahoma on the eve of statehood, is still about two couples: Laurey and Curly, two women, and Will and Ado Andy, two men. The family matriarch, Aunt Eller, in the Oregon production is transsexual!

There’s romance between farmer Laurey Williams (Royer Bockus) and cowboy Curly McLain (Tatiana Wechsler), both in the original version and in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s inclusive “Oklahoma!”

No, the degree of total acceptance if not nonchalance regarding same sex couples was not even remotely possible in 1906 in Oklahoma or anywhere, for that matter. Rather, this projects backwards more than a hundred years and imagines an embrace of LGBTQ people that represents a kind of utopia of universal acceptance.

The original production of “Oklahoma!” in 1943 was equally radical. And . . . the key production members were Jewish: the producer and head of the Theatre Guild Theresa Helburn; first-time collaborators composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II; and, even choreographer Agnes de Mille had a Jewish grandmother.

“Oklahoma!” is usually considered to be the first true Broadway musical, setting itself apart from the operettas and revues that characterized New York theater at the time. It broke all the templates typical of the musical theater. Unlike the typical revues, the show began with a solo song rather than an ensemble. The choreography was totally unique, reflecting the styles of turn-of-the-last-century folk music and dance, and featuring an unheard of 15 minute ballet “the dream sequence,” setting the stage for the hint of violence which was to come.

The songs especially were a major innovation: they were written and designed to advance the plot and the action of the show rather than just embellishing the show. In fact, unlike other shows – including separate projects by both Rodgers & Hammerstein – Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and Rodgers wrote the music to fit, rather than the usual method of the composer creating the songs, and the lyricist making up lyrics that fit the existing melodies. The effect was an entirely new format never seen before. Although “Oklahoma!” didn’t win a Tony Award at the time since there was not yet a category for musical theater, it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1944!

The 1943 musical was based on the 1930 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” by Lynn Riggs – a play about Oklahoma residents on the eve of statehood. The play, as well as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that grew out of it, is about inclusivity and the resolution of tensions, in the context of the age-old animosity between farmers and cowboys, an animosity as old as Cain and Abel. The romance between Curly McLain, a cowboy, and Laurey Williams, a farmer, and their marriage at the end of the show, complete with their exit in the “Pretty Little Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” represents the ability of the Farmer and the Cowman to live together peacefully. There’s even a major song about how the “Farmer and the Cowman Must be Friends.”

For Rodgers and Hammerstein, a frothy musical about peace and co-existence was particularly compelling in 1943. Even though they weren’t totally aware of what would be “the final solution of the Jewish problem” in Europe at the time, they were fully aware that their people were suffering at the hands of the Nazis. So for Rodgers and Hammerstein, projecting backwards to turn of the last century America, and creating a world of acceptance and tolerance was particularly compelling. Their vision was remarkable, but it must be noted that the vision was a particularly white and heterosexual vision. Even though Oklahoma was “an Indian Territory,” there are no Indians in the show and no blacks. Even the only “foreign” character, Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler, was played by a white actor in the original production. Nevertheless, the show is remarkable in its radical form and its radical message.

Now sweep ahead 75 years to Ashland, Oregon. Bill Rauch, the director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, had dreamed of an LGBTQ version of “Oklahoma!” since the 1990s. His vision of acceptance and inclusion was stunning in its modernity. What if, just as Rodgers and Hammerstein projected backwards to the turn of the century and created a vision of tolerance based on their 1943 sensibilities, Rauch projected a modern 21st century vision of inclusion? Of course, such a project could not have been possible without official approval. Astoundingly, Ted Chapin, the guardian of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Catalogue, loved the idea! He recognized that “Oklahoma!” as well as other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows was radical to its core. What a better tribute than this new production, which pushes the limits of race and gender?

The show, with minor changes, made the main romantic couple Curly a black cowgirl, and Laurey a white farmer, and the comic couple Will Parker, a black cowboy in love with Ado Andy, a “guy who can’t say no.” The matriarch, Aunt Eller, as well, pushed the limits as a transgender woman played by a transgender actress. For a whole audience of older LGBTQ people, who had never seen themselves reflected in popular theater, the effect was stunning. Positive images of LGBTQ romances just didn’t exist until fairly recently.

The production in Oregon was an overwhelming sold-out success. Even though it’s often difficult to see the original production and think of its radical roots, this fresh new production gives it the vitality and social commentary that is true to the innovations of its original creators.