Tonight, as I write this, I am thinking of an event that took place 70 year ago right now. People were slowly wandering in to the St. James Theater. As Agnes DeMille remembered, "The audience was a regular Theatre Guild opening night: spotty, dull, jaded. I had eight front row balcony seats, and I couldn't fill them. And the press wasn't that good. It was mixed. Four days later, I found myself in the middle of a volcano. What happened? A New York reporter told me, " The biggest hit of the 20th Century!" and I believe, taking into consideration all its translations, and international companies and recordings, it still is. What is its appeal? First of all, its extraordinary score. But then, it's subject: the love of our native land; home; roots. During the war, I remember the triple row of enlisted men standing every night in the back of the theater. Fixed in laughter in the presence of this comedy; standing and laughing with the tears streaming down their cheeks. They were going out to die. And this play meant what they were dying for. This was home. Oklahoma, New York, Oregon, Utah, Texas, Vermont. Oklahoma! Home. Home-ah. OK!"
It should be said right up front: I saw Oklahoma! when I was twelve years old at New York's City Center. At that tender age I already knew every word of the show (from the published Random House book) and had the original cast album on LP. It was in March of 1958 and my Aunt Jenny, who took her little nephew to Broadway, was my date. Betty Garde played Aunt Eller, which was exciting enough for me, but somewhere in the middle of that performance I realized I was actually seeing the original production - and I was astounded.
I knew some of the original designs from black and white photographs I had seen in books, the most famous of which was also on the cover of the cast album. What I was unprepared for was the riot of colors and textures in the scenic and costume designs. In retrospect I now realize I was seeing the drops and costumes culled from the national tour and the Broadway production (which also toured), both of which had just closed after more than a decade of use. It was, I believe, the very last time that original production was seen. I was a lucky kid and I have never forgotten it.
That is one of the reasons I encouraged a recreation of that production at UNC's School of the Arts in the spring of 2011. The other reason had to do with exploring the importance of that totality - the way all the artistic elements worked together to tell the story, something Rodgers himself had written about. In addition, I had come to understand what that production meant to the people of America and how it came to represent us after World War II. I thought it might be important to see it - if that was even possible.
The point of this article is what I learned about the show - the entity - of Oklahoma!
First of all, most people know it is long - three hours long. The overture was played before curtain time in those days. It was how the audience was summoned into the house. There were "warmers" on the curtain and slowly, as the overture progressed, the lights lowered and the audience was forced into paying attention to what was about to happen. (a three hour evening in the theater was not uncommon even in comedies and dramas at that time, I should add.)
Much has been written about the odd disparity of Act One (two hours) and Act Two (one hour).
That is because Oklahoma! is actually a three-act drama, played with one interval. The actual first act ends as Curly goes off to have a confrontation with Jud, leaving Aunt Eller alone, as she was at the beginning of the play. The curtain comes down at this point and when it goes up, the audience finds itself in a different set - the smoke house. The contents of the structural second act is the smoke house, the grove and the dream version of the Oklahoma environment. Like a screen play, the structure then finds its logical conclusion in the third act - which is the titular Act Two: from night into day, when all the elements of the exposition are brought back and resolved, including a second "beautiful morning." The final set design of Lemuel Ayers is the complement of the very first set: It is what all the characters were looking at in scene one of Act One: That bright golden haze on the meadow, the initials on that tree. Now, finally, the audience is permitted to see what this show was all about: the magnificent land and our responsibilities toward it. It is the locale of the title song, as well as the climax and resolution of the drama.
The time dimensions of Oklahoma! are similar to grand opera. The show takes its time - and we learn that from the introduction to the first song, which is both quiet and moderate. "Oh, what a Beautiful Mornin'" is the very opposite of an opening number. We slow down. It is followed by a second solo number for Curly, "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." And all the while only three people inhabit the stage.
The book of Oklahoma! is built on a double triangle of character relationships. At the top of each triangle is a woman. These two women are best friends and each has a pair of suitors. Hammerstein creates a double exposition in the first scene of his libretto - and don't think for a minute he was unaware of how opera librettos were built. His grandfather ran the Manhattan Opera House, after all. Rodgers had studied all the classics as a composition student.
With Laurey being pursued by Curly and Jud on the one hand and Ado Annie being pursued by Will Parker and Ali Hakim on the other, we have a dynamic situation for an epic comic drama - or drama giocosa, as Mozart and da Ponte called their Don Giovanni. And like their Cosi` fan tutte, the various combinations of solos, duets and ensembles, both sung and spoken, are worked out with mathematical precision over a three hour period.
As an equal partner in the story telling, costume designer Miles White gave the audience the keys to understanding what is going on behind the words. He never attempted to be realistic. He came to this musical having designed for the circus, after all! When we first see them, Eller and Curly are of the same earth tones, but Curly has an orange-pink bandana with polka dots on it. This is the color and texture of sexuality and exuberance. We know Eller wants Curly to marry her niece because the two are cut out of the same cloth. Laurey, however, is in blue and white. She is perhaps an unconscious echo of the Dorothy Gale portrayed in the 1939 MGM version of The Wizard of Oz. Her pinafore and her colors tell us she is a virgin and she is unavailable. (As the show progresses, Laurey will lose the pinafore, but maintain blue around her waist. By Act Two she is still in white, but with small pink circles embroidered on the fabric. In that dress, she will agree to marry Curly.)
The second part of the first scene is the arrival of all the men with Will Parker. Only Eller remains to represent the women folk, but just as an observer. The second half of the number gives Will a chance to show his skill as a tap dancer as he teaches the boys "ragtime." The original text is significant. Will says, "I seen a couple of colored fellers do it." Take a moment to think about that line and what it would mean in the context of Indian Territory in 1906 and America in 1943. Hammerstein lets his comic hero give credit for ragtime to African-Americans whom Will saw while in the big city.
This scene sets up two important elements in the story: the Little Wonder, a present for Will's future father-in-law, and the $50.00 he needs to earn the right to marry her.
When that number is over, the men leave and Curly has a private encounter with Eller about her niece. This is when we see his nemesis: Jud Fry. The first triangle has been presented to the audience and the box social and its importance is now firmly established in the audience's mind. There is danger and it runs through the text like a poison snake in the brush.
As Laurey expresses her fears about Jud, we are introduced to her best friend, Ado Annie, who is in the company of a traveling salesman, Ali Hakim. White puts Ado Annie is an explosion of shocking pink polka dots on a white dress with a plunging neckline and gives her a white and pink parasol. These two best friends could not be more opposite in their attitude toward sensuality and seeing them next to each other, the audience is told all it needs to know. The outrageous color and fabric patterns on Ado Annie firmly establish her as a comic element (and her entrance sometimes got applause just by showing up)!
When Will comes back to see Annie after having been away for the rope steering contest, we complete the second triangle: Annie introduces Will to Ali Hakim, and all the dramatic elements are now all in play. White lets us know these men are the comics in pursuit of the same objective, Ado Annie: They each uniquely wear plaid. Will's is red jacket and Hakim's is an entire plaid suit - something right out of vaudeville.
It is only here, some 40 minutes into Act One, that the entire company enters and for a brief moment the stage is populated with the most of he cast. But that leads almost immediately to a musical scene for the girls. Like "Kansas City," which is for the boys, "Many a New Day" is for the girls, and acts as a symmetrical response, complete with a danced second half - but this time it is a modern ballet of femininity, self-empowerment and jealousy for primacy among the women, with the "fall-down girl" attempting to take center stage away from Laurey.
Ali Hakim then gets a number - one that was cut from the movie - after an unfortunate meeting with the other significant adult in the show: Mr. Carnes, Ado Annie's father. The song ("It's a Scandal") has no business being in the score of Oklahoma!, and that is its point. Hakim is from another world and he is given a vaudeville song - something for Eddie Cantor in a Ziegfeld show. Since Ado Annie is the girl whom the boys all like, her two suitors' numbers are with the entire male chorus - no women allowed. In Hakim's case however, the women come in at the very end to show the boys who's boss, as Ali Hakim will learn at the end of the show.
Curly and Laurey are permitted to be alone for one short scene and their song, "People will say we're in Love" is a duet in which neither sings with the other. That will not happen until Act Two for the song's reprise and after they have agreed to marry. At this point in the drama, however, they sing at each other, not with each other.
The second scene of Act One (the structural second act) opens in a claustrophobic smoke house. It is the dark moment in which the two men in Triangle A meet. With sadistic control, Curly outwits his rival in "Poor Jud," and leaves the premises when Hakim crosses over from Triangle B, to interest Jud in buying dirty pictures. The Little Wonder's real purpose is revealed to the audience. Once alone, Jud sings his solo number - the other song cut from the film of Oklahoma!. Again, this is a song that does not belong to the musical world of this show. It is more like something Kurt Weil would have written. In an odd way, it is the dark precursor to Billy Bigalow's soliloquy, composed two years later for Carousel. But like "It's a Scandal" this song does not belong, and that is the point.
In the grove Laurey is seen with the girls whom she banishes so she can be alone to make up her mind. The dream ballet that continues the drama as a possible outcome of Triangle A, gives the entire show over to Agnes de Mille, and it is about as bold a gesture as ever put on the lyric stage. The murder of Curly and the implied rape of Laurey are mitigated only by the return of the acting Jud and the acting Laurey when he awakens her because "It's time to go to the party."
The curtain falls as the acting Curly is left, arms crossed, alone and distressed as his girlfriend goes off with Jud.
Two hours have passed and the audience is only two thirds of the way through the tale. When the curtain rises for Act Two, it is night and we have the first general number in the show! "The Farmer and the Cowman" is the precursor of the Jets and the Sharks, just as the dream ballet is the precursor of the nightmare ballet in Act Two of West Side Story. (This ballet was cut from the film version and decimated by Arthur Laurents in his recent "revival" of the show. Laurents apparently never liked the ballet in the original show and once he took over the role of director, 52 years after West Side Story opened, it was gone without a trace and without any critics seeming to take notice. That show had not been seen on Broadway in 30 years, and no critics remained who actually knew that other "most important musical" to emerge from America's musical theater legacy.)
Miles White continues his color transformations as his characters progress in Act Two. Only Hakim remains in his Act One costume, because he never changes. Ado Annie is now in blues and greens, but the cutting of the material and the patterns they make are still vibrant and unexpected. Will still has a plaid jacket, but now it is congruent with Annie's color spectrum, a sign of what is meant to be the natural outcome of his rivalry with Ali Hakim. When the cornfield drop is revealed, she is the color of the land and the corn. Her chartreuse shoes and gloves perfectly match the vegetation from the land on which she will soon inhabit as a married woman. The blue in her tartan plaid is the color of the sky. And when we last see her, she is in plain chartreuse, but with pink around her waist: the controlled sexuality of a woman who will marry Will Parker. Will, however, is wearing a saturated pink shirt beneath his blue plaid jacket. He is about to find fulfillment with Annie as Triangle B's comic journey comes to its ending at the conclusion of the show.
Curly, who was first seen in a gold shirt with an orange-pink bandana, will be seen at the story's conclusion in a similarly saturated deep pink shirt with a gold bandana. Thus he is transformed from cowboy to farmer from implicitly sensual to totally committed to his connubial life with Laurey. What a difference between Ado and Curly who have completely reversed their major color components.
Jud, who's deep red undershirt was a clear indication of his inner soul, does wear a respectable black and grey costume at the box social, but when he returns for the final fight with Curly, he is back in his deep red shirt and this time it is not tucked into his trousers.
Set designer Lemuel Ayers has taken his cues from the American regionalist painters of his time. I remember thinking of Grandma Moses when I first saw his drops in 1958. I thought the final image was like quilts. Indeed that two dimensionality is part of the style. However, one cannot help but see more than just WPA shapes and the DNA of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. The Act Two cornfield drop with its yellow road and curved horizon could be a set piece from The Wizard of Oz. It is impossible to know, but it could just be that all of Broadway was this colorful in the 1930s and 1940s. We have grown up with black and white photographs.
Unlike Hollywood movie musicals that have been restored exposing spectacular color palettes, Broadway never recreates original productions, so we have come to assume a kind of grayness that comes from fading pictures in history books, just as the world once thought the Sistine Chapel's ceiling was browns and dark reds before the years of wax and smoke were removed to reveal its original color spectrum. It is just possible that it was Broadway that inspired the colors of Arthur Freed's musicals at MGM, including those by Vincente Minelli. It is even more likely that both Hollywood and Broadway were singing out of the very same hymnal here, influencing each other. The boards of Hollywood studios were in New York City, not Hollywood.
In Act Two, the implications and the working out of the two triangles are brilliantly brought to their two conclusions. The audience thinks Curly has won Laurey by outbidding Jud at the auction, only for him to return after the title song, drunk and violent, and killed in front of the audience in a knife fight with Curly. Will gets to keep his $50.00, with the help of Hakim himself, and although the audience thinks the story is finally over for Triangle B, the last big laughs come when Hakim returns - after so many Persian good-byes - as the surprise shotgun husband of Gertie. A perfect tying up of all the loose ends which leads directly into the finale.
The finale is particularly original. A quick chorus of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" with the entrance of the actual surrey - something we had only dreamed about two hours ago - is about as dramatic as the helicopter in Miss Saigon or the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera. As the couple is pulled offstage, waving to the crowd, the curtain falls.
But wait! The orchestra strikes up a little introduction and we hear an instrumental of "People will say we're in Love." Behind the curtain there is a mad dash to find places and the curtain rises to reveal everyone in tableau vivant. At that moment, everyone breaks character and sings directly to the audience - Jud, too! - "Sweetheart, they're suspecting things. People will say we're in love."
It is a brilliant stroke. People cry. It is an explosion of honest emotion and one of the most original and bold gestures in the original production concept. Whether this was Rouben Mamoulian or Hammerstein or Rodgers or de Mille - who knows? - it is magic. It works in Verdi's Falstaff and it works here, too.
And then, after two endings and two curtains, the curtain comes back up for the company and solo bows.
Some people have made various odd assertions about Oklahoma!, but one thing seemingly missing from understanding its heart is what Lynn Riggs brought to the original play and Hammerstein amplified. Yes, there are no Native Americans in this Indian Territory. However, Riggs, who was part Cherokee, brings the spirituality of man's relationship with the land on which we live into every fiber of the text and the drama. This sensibility is crucial in justifying the actions of every character in the drama.
I learned from Celeste Holm and Joan Roberts something crucial about Laurey and Ado Annie, the two women who are best friends and who make the long transition from Act One to the final curtain: Joan was Laurey: the strong one, like her Aunt Eller: feisty and tough. Only her Long Island accent told me she was not from Oklahoma. Celeste was sweet and malleable. It was deeply inciteful to meet these two actors, well into their nineties, who were exactly the people Rodgers & Hammerstein (and Mamoulian) cast in their musical drama.
And it is a drama, one full of laughs and kept afloat with an incredible score by Richard Rodgers and lyrics that come directly out of spoken text - because both were written by the same person, Oscar Hammerstein II. It is a story of young people, with one "old woman" as the guardian of the young woman in Triangle A, and one grumpy and protective father of the young woman in Triangle B. They are the only two fully developed adult characters in the brilliantly crafted and balanced story of young people in a young country - one that captured the essence of America during World War II.
And when that war was over, it just continued for a decade, week after week, touring the United States, playing on Broadway, replicated in Australia, London and finally in Paris to start its final tour - this time, on the continent that was building itself out of the ravages of the war.
Oklahoma! -- the original production -- is part of the emergence of the United States as the bringer of peace and the source of an art form that was to be embraced by the Old World. It told a story of victory and it promised a world of flowers and hard work, with room for everyone and yes, with plenty of heart and plenty of hope.
That is what I learned.