Photo via Oklahoma! Broadway

‘Oklahoma!’ Is Perfectly Suited To The ‘Old Town Road’ Era

The Broadway revival won two Tonys on Sunday night, but its cultural relevance extends beyond awards.

by Christopher Barnard
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Jun 10 2019, 9:18pm

Photo via Oklahoma! Broadway

The Verdigris River just outside of Claremore, Oklahoma flooded in May, forcing emergency evacuations and devastating the homes and livelihoods of area residents. All spring, the images of overflowing Oklahoma waterways have been splashed across front pages and nightly news, more so recently because emergency aid was stalled due to one Republican stalwart demanding an allocation for Trump’s border wall. It’s hard not to think of one of the area’s more famous, albeit fictional, townsfolk entreaties to faith: “You gotta be hearty. You got to be” in a time of such dire, meteorological straits. That would be Aunt Eller speaking to her niece Laurie during the emotional climax of Oklahoma! the musical, a revival of which won 2 Tony Awards on Sunday.

The very real town of Claremore that serves as the backdrop for the classic musical has been in the direct swath of storms, tornadoes and floods that ravaged the northeastern part of the state for the last three months. Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist for the show, wrote in its sweeping, titular song: “We know we belong to the land.” It would appear the land, and its water, is making good on its claim.

The Claremore of Broadway, a thousand or so miles from the Ozark foothills, has its own set of problems to get through every night at the Circle In The Square Theatre on 50th St. This 2019 revival of Oklahoma!, which originated at Bard SummerScape in 2015 under the direction of Daniel Fish , is as spectacular as it is sinister. The tale of chaste Laurie, the strapping Curly and menacing Jud Fry is woven so deeply into the fabric of the mainstream theatre canon and broader white culture of the country that earnestly mythologizes westward expansion, it is hard to imagine such a timeworn story feeling fresh. But in “sexy Oklahoma” there is none of the expected period frippery—the setting is prescribed as 1906—or lavish sets (or stars) that usually accompany such a remounting of an American classic.

The stage has more the feel of a rural church fellowship hall or small town meeting house, with its cheep unfinished pine and garrish party streamers (Laura Jellinek was nominated for scenic design). What that serves to do more than anything is highlight the chilling relevance the 75-year-old musical has. When you dismantle the trappings of the original staging, a jarring timeliness is plain. For instance: Judd, the brooding hired hand obsessed with teenaged Laurie and pornography, is absolutely an incel . Which would then make Curly, his handsome rival and the story’s leading man, a Chad. And then there is the sage Aunt Eller, the matriarch so perfectly portrayed by Mary Testa (also nominated), who lobbies successfully for Curly to have his murder trial sped up so he can make the train for his honeymoon, an example of #CrimingWhileWhite if there ever was one.

It is important to note that none of the original songs or dialogue was changed for this current production and yet the conclusion feels as though it was re written completely. For the finale, the hero is found innocent and the happy couple are off to their honeymoon, but not before the final rousing rendition of of the titular song, brought on by the news that Oklahoma was now officially a state. In her acceptance speech for Best Revival, producer Eva Price said “ Oklahoma! reminds us that when we try to define who we are as a community, by creating an outsider, it can end in tragedy.” As opposed to previous iterations, the evidence of Judd’s murder stays on stage, via the blood-spattered wedding costumes of the leading couple. To behold the cast singing racuously to this beloved barnstormer of a closing number, with blood on their hands and the glowing thrill of vigilante justice in their eyes, is like the first time you understand the words of a well-worn nursery rhyme.

The creators of this frontier fairytale were not Rodgers & Hammerstein but the much lesser-known Lynn Riggs, whose 1931 play, Green Grow The Lilacs, was the basis for the original 1943 musical which follows the Lilacs plot to the letter. Riggs grew up in and around Claremore at the turn of the century and based most of the characters, which are all nearly identical to the version we know today, on family members or townsfolk he knew. In an ironic bit of personal fortune, Riggs was able to support his fledgling writing career while working on Lilacs with the refinancing of land he inherited from his deceased mother granted to her as part of the Dawes Act, a government settlement with Native Americans in the area—Rigg’s mother was 1/8 Cherokee, making him 1/16, the paradox being that a reparative measure on behalf of a subjugated minority was ostensibly used to support the crafting of a play preoccupied with a whitewashed version of that very land. There is no mention of the Cherokee or Osage tribes that the Oklahoma Territory displaced (though Riggs did stage other work dealing with Cherokee characters and themes).

In Lilacs, anxiety or fascination with non-white characters is channeled into The Pedler (who is described as “Syrian” and is given the full characterization of Ali Hakim in the musical and film) and also a bizarre monologue Laurie gives about a fantasy she has of living in the White House and being waited upon by black servants. The harshness and solitude of the unsettled landscape is more apparent in Lilacs than the musical version, and returns to the fore in OK 2019 with the stripped down staging and unflinching violence (never before has blood spattered on an Oklahoma! stage or film set), as does the barbaric ordeal of the “shivaree,” the rustic tradition of hazing a newlywed couple by banging pots and screaming into the night as they presumably consummate the marriage. In Lilacs, Laurie and Aunt Eller talk about the fear of starvation and the imminent threat of fire or pestilence that could visit upon their homestead in the blink of an eye. It is of a piece with the devastation and cataclysm that feels daily more apparent in the physical and political world of 2019 just as it did in 1906.

A central tension in both the original play and the musical version is that between the farmers settling the territory and the cowboys who live mostly a rootless, nomadic existence herding “dogies” and riding from town to town. This conflict is demonstrated playfully in the Act 2 song “The Farmer And The Cowman (Should Be Friends).” I thought of this song the first time I heard the anthem of the spring, Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, specifically the lyric “I been in the valley / you ain’t been up off that porch.” And another: “I got the horses in the back / Horse tack is attached / Hat is matte black /Got the boots that's black to match” is just a 2019 version of Curly’s paen to a vehicular flexing “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”? (The wheels are yellow, the upholstery's brown / The dashboard's genuine leather /With isinglass curtains y' can roll right down / In case there's a change in the weather). And furthermore, “My life is a movie / Bull ridin’ and boobies” is big Curly energy.

It feels almost irrelevant how many Tonys Oklahoma! picked up on Sunday (2 out of 8 nominations), as the chord it has been able to strike with audiences and a wary nation is undeniable. The sight of Ali Stroker, who is paralyzed from the waist down and won for her portrayal of the boy-crazy Ado Annie, making history as the first winner ever to use a wheelchair demonstrates just one of the productions triumph. Agnes de Mille, the iconoclastic choreographer, recounts how during the inaugural 1943 run, sailors filled the balcony, welling up with tears before they shipped off to war, gazing upon the frontier idyll that was of a piece with the idea of America they were fighting for. The reaction to this Oklahoma! is more ambivalent but no less moving. It demands a recontextualizing of a story that feels so deeply ingrained in theatre history and a particularly comforting, and dangerous, ideal of America.