When Oklahoma! debuted on Broadway in 1943, it won a special Pulitzer Prize and ran for more than five years, which was a record at the time. War-weary Americans loved the upbeat songs crafted by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in their first collaboration: “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Oklahoma!” Most of the critics of the time praised it as well – though a few pointedly preferred the more urbane and sophisticated lyrics of Rodgers’ previous songwriting partner, Lorenz Hart.
Since then, Oklahoma! has taken its place in theatrical history as one of the first “book musicals” (after Show Boat), thoroughly integrating songs into a well-developed story, instead of the “story” being a thin and artificial framing device serving only to string a bunch of unrelated production numbers together. And the “dream ballet” sequence, originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille, took the concept of dance in a stage musical to a new level of serious art.
Over time, Oklahoma! came to epitomize the image of Rodgers & Hammerstein as purveyors of wholesome, squeaky-clean, cornball Americana, and productions became fewer as the theatergoing public became fascinated with edgier musicals like Cabaret and A Chorus Line. But interest in the work has been stirring again of late, with producers and directors realizing that Oklahoma!’s darker narrative elements lend themselves to more topical interpretations. What does one do, in 2016, with a play that features an Iranian character of dubious business ethics, a creepy stalker villain and two female leads who could arguably be portrayed as victims – or even enablers – of sexual assault? A 2012 production in Seattle made audiences queasy by casting a black actor as Jud, forcing a radical reinterpretation of the scene in which Curley recommends that he hang himself.
So it will be most interesting to see what Joe Langworth does to modernize this story when directing and choreographing a new production of Oklahoma! by the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz, which opens this Thursday and runs through November 20. A Broadway veteran with a slew of award nominations under his belt, Langworth helmed three well-received musicals when he was on the department’s faculty in 2012/13: The Producers, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Rent. Liz Toleno will be the musical director with a student cast and crew.
“Having worked on the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, I am a huge fan of the collaborations of Rodgers and Hammerstein,” says Langworth. “I find endless possibilities within their work to expose the opposing strength and frailty of human nature.”
Performances of Oklahoma! at SUNY-New Paltz’s McKenna Theatre begin at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, November 10 to 12 and 17 to 19, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinées on November 13 and 20. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $18 for seniors (62+), New Paltz faculty and staff and non-New Paltz students and $10 for SUNY-New Paltz students. They can be purchased from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the box office in Parker Theatre on campus or online at www.newpaltz.edu/theatre. For additional information call (845) 257- 3880 or e-mail email@example.com.