When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opened in March 1943, the world was engulfed in war. Hitler’s armies were laying waste to most of Europe; Allied forces fought fiercely against Japan. Everyday Americans, barely past the deprivation of the Great Depression, sought hope and sunlight amid the gloom and gray of the daily news.
Against this backdrop came “a bright, golden haze on the meadow,” a story of shining optimism that was about not only individuals carving out their living amid the prairies and pastures of Oklahoma territory, but one that was about who we were as Americans.
Oklahoma! was an immediate triumph. It would run for five years, amassing more than 2,100 performances, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and cementing the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein as Broadway visionaries. They went on to write the shows that defined American musical theater in the 1940s and ‘50s, including South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. And Oklahoma! would become one of the most-produced shows in theater history.
As the show this year marks its 75th anniversary, there’s a reason it’s endured and we’ve come to call it a classic. But it’s also more than that.
“This is a musical about how America understands itself,” says Kevin Moriarty, director of the Theatre Under the Stars production that kicks off the company's 50th anniversary season. “It still reflects a vision about who we can be.”
When Oklahoma! premiered, the belief in an America where people came together for a common good was why families shipped their sons off to the front lines.
“Young men were dying for these ideals,” Moriarty says, “and Oklahoma!, at its core, is a story about finding a common identity, learning to live together and love each other amid all their differences.”
Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1930 play Green Grow the Lilacs, the musical's plot is fairly simple: It’s about a cowboy named Curly McLain and a settler named Laurey Williams, as well as her hired hand named Judd Fry, who’s going to take her to a party. But Rodgers and Hammerstein saw deeper themes in their adaptation: isolation, love, pride, and the meaning of self-determination.
“At other moments over the course of its existence, Oklahoma! can be seen as quaint,” says Moriarty, “but I don’t think that’s true today. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote this really sophisticated show, especially when they crafted the character of Judd Fry.”
Fry serves as the play’s antagonist. He’s crude, violent, and lives apart from everyone else, in a tiny smokehouse on Laurey and her Aunt Eller’s property. His only experience of people is working on a farm, and his experience of what women should do and be comes from the racy photos he buys from traveling peddlers.
Moriarty sees that same kind of isolation—the unrealistic expectations—in several incidents that have happened recently, from school shootings to messages about immigration. It’s that lack of empathy, of knowing people as people, that Oklahoma! addresses.
“And you contrast Judd to Curly,” he says. “Curly has his own issues, but they’re about vulnerability—about how to be vulnerable in his feelings for Laurey, how they reach out and work together to figure it out. They want to be out of the kind of lonely room Judd has.”
Moriarty says he sees the musical as a show that is all about bringing people together—and TUTS’ production aims to do that both literally and figuratively.
For one, this outing marks a first-ever collaboration with Houston Ballet, whose artistic director, Stanton Welch, will realize and expand upon Agnes DeMille’s original choreography. That choreography—including Act One’s iconic dream ballet—made Oklahoma! one of the first instances where dance and song were applied to further a musical’s story. For this production, nearly two dozen Houston Ballet company members will perform Welch’s updated movement.
“When I was told the Ballet was going to be involved, I was like, ‘Oh, my God! I get to be in a room with these people? I will direct this show for free,’” says Moriarty of the milestone collaboration.
Moriarty was also thrilled to put together a cast that came from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The musical has often been staged with an all-white cast, but Moriarty says it’s ridiculous to defend the practice with some argument that sounds like, "Well, who else was around in Oklahoma in 1907?”
“The themes in this show are not unique to any one race or ethnicity or gender,” he says. “And if you’re going to do a piece that speaks to our contemporary truths, why wouldn’t you cast it to reflect who we are and what we look like today? I love that we’ve brought together an Anglo, Latinx, African American, and Asian American cast to tell this story. That’s who Houston is. This show absolutely should look like Houston.”
Moriarty really believes Oklahoma! is just as aspirational today as it was when it first premiered. And he’s betting that audiences who’ve seen the show before will find deeper meanings in this production, and that those first-timers in the audience will discover why the play has endured and enchanted for decades.
“We still need the optimism Oklahoma! offers,” he says, “and I’m excited for people to see that.”
Sept. 11–23. Tickets from $30. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2525. More info and tickets at tuts.com.