Saturday, October 1, 2016

‘A winkin’ her eye

It is Wednesday, March 31, 1943. Outside Broadway’s St. James Theatre clouds of anxiety and uncertainty, penetrated by occasional glimmers of good news, have been hovering since December 7, 1941. Nearly 9000 miles to the west, the U.S. Navy has dealt a blow to the Japanese in the Bismarck Sea, 4000 miles to the east, the Allies are squeezing Germany out of North Africa, but hoped-for D-Day, the beginning of the liberation of France is still fourteen months in the future.

Inside the doors of the St. James, a seeming lifetime away, the overture comes to an end and the rising curtain reveals a sparse, simple pastoral scene: an old woman churning butter on the veranda of a small farmhouse. The stalks of a cornfield, anchored to the ground/stage point upwards to a golden blue sky with wispy clouds that fade into distant memory.

The anxiety outside – the reality of a second great war in a quarter century – is temporarily replaced by the beginnings of a melodic story set before the first Great War. Distant from cities, in the Indian Territory (but with no “Indian” roles), the rural cast of Oklahoma! can’t even be called “Okies” yet, and if they were land-rush “Sooners” the tale doesn’t tell. Except for the itinerant “Persian” peddler, the characters are the temporal and geographic continuation of the “Scotch-Irish” invasion that surged in the Jacksonian age, climbed into the Appalachians, and penetrated west and south through the Border States into the southern Great Plains. Could this rural American culture and its musicalized story be any more alien to a Manhattan audience? Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the first performance all kinds of people agreed they were in love with the play, and critics began proclaiming Oklahoma! the most fully-realized, integrated musical play in American stage history.

The story had its creative roots in the play, Green Grow the Lilacs, planted close geographically and temporally near the birthplace of author Lynn Riggs – Claremore, Indian Territory (he was born eight years before Statehood). From the dominance of literal horsepower to stories of gas-buggies in the nearest big city, as well as anticipated statehood in Oklahoma!, we infer it is right around the turn of the Twentieth Century.

A cowboy approaches the farmhouse and begins to sing: “Oh, what a beautiful morning…” a capella. Thus does the conceit of the musical play allow for an alien rural culture to enter Knickerbocker consciousness. To whom is the cowboy singin’? Is it he himself, the old woman, a young woman hidden in the house, and/or the hushed audience?

A fully “integrated” musical play begins – the product of decades, even centuries of evolution – and the creative fruit of the collaboration of author, composer, lyricist, choreographer, and director, as well as actors. The play takes traditional structures, reorganizes them, and adds new elements. More importantly, more pervasive self-structuring is crafted, forming the pervasive “integration” that is the distinct component introduced by Oklahoma! into musical theater.
As a native Cornhusker (Go Big Red!), it has always bothered me that the consensus ground-breaking piece of musical theater dances its way across the imperfect prairie of the more southerly Sooner State, and not the expansive, rolling Sandhills north of the Platte River (some of the most sublime country imaginable). Why couldn’t there be a musical called “Nebraska”? Part of the answer, of course, is Lynn Rigg’s Green Grow the Lilacs: Riggs, the native of the future Oklahoma. Maybe someday someone will make an extraordinary musical out of O Pioneers!, Old Jules, My Antonia, or the Huskers second national championship season (the Sooners’ greatest regret). Until then, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first masterpiece will remain the classic, ground-breaking “integrated” stage musical play.

So why did Oklahoma! cause such a stir and why, after nearly seventy years, is it still recognized as a landmark … a milestone in performance art? Consider these characterizations (highlighting added):

Lewis Nichols of the New York Times (1943, quoted in Wilk, 1993): A truly delightful musical play … Wonderful is the nearest adjective, for this excursion of the [Theatre] Guild combines a fresh and infectious gaiety, a charm of manner, beautiful acting, singing, and dancing, and a score by Richard Rodgers that doesn’t do any harm, either, since it is one of his best.

Burton Rascoe (1943, in Wilk, 1993): The Theater (sic) Guild … has a hit on its hands. With its Oklahoma [sic], … the Guild has combined some of the best features of ballet at the Met with some of the best features of the great tradition of Broadway’s own indigenous contribution to the theater – a girl show with lovely tunes, a couple of comics, a heavy, pretty costuming and an infectious spirit of gayety and good humor.

John Anderson (1943, in Wilk, 1993): When the Theatre Guild goes gay anything can happen – sometimes the best and sometimes the worst, but from the uproar of welcome at the St. James last night there was no mistaking the fact that in “Oklahoma” (sic) the Guild has a beautiful and delightful show, fresh and imaginative, as enchanting to the eye as Richard Rodgers’ music is to the ear. It has, at a rough estimate, practically everything.

Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune (1943; quoted in Lerner, 1987; also in Wilk, 1993) “Songs, dances and story have been triumphantly blended. The Rodgers score is one of his best, which is saying plenty. Hammerstein has written a dramatically originally libretto and a string of catchy lyrics; Agnes de Mille has worked small miracles … a striking piece of theatrical American.”

Brooks Atkinson (1974): When he [Hammerstein] and Rodgers got to work on the script of Green Grow the Lilacs, they departed from the old forms completely. Through taste, freshness, and enthusiasm, they raised the artistic level of the Broadway musical stage to a point where it had to be taken seriously as literature.

Hugh Fordin (1977): Not only did [Oscar Hammerstein II] contribute to the musical heritage of several generations with such songs as “Ol Man River,” “Indian Love Call,” “Who?” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “The Sound of Music,” but he radically altered the American Musical with his Show Boat, Oklahoma!, and South Pacific. ,,, Show Boat, to which reviewers likened Oklahoma!, had been the first milestone for the integrated musical play, breaking with many of the traditions of operetta and vaudeville revue. …. Oklahoma! brought together all the trends that had been growing disparately: each of its component parts was good, but it was the sum of them that made the show so extraordinary. … The great musicals that came after the landmark show succeeded because they used the lesson of Oklahoma! well: the emphasis was not so much on the freedom from convention as on artistic integrity.

Abe Lauff (1977): The miraculous transformation of Green Grow the Lilacs into a record-breaking success was not the work of any one person. Rodgers and Hammerstein deserved much of the credit, for although they followed the original plot, they speeded up the action, added the humor which the play had lacked, and provided excellent music and lyrics. Agnes de Mille also deserved accolades for her choreography. She skillfully used dance routines, particularly ballet sequences, to help develop the plot; and Rouben Mamoulian earned equal credit for skillfully integrating the plot, the music, and the dancing. The integration, in fact, is so complete that an explanation or listing of the musical numbers definitely belongs in a synopsis of the plot.

Alan Jay Lerner (1980): Oscar Hammerstein, on the other hand, was very much a dramatic lyric writer and with Oklahoma he and Dick Rodgers radically changed the course of the musical theatre. The musical comedy became a musical play. … The mood of the country switched like a traffic light to escapism, nostalgia, and fantasy. Oklahoma was all those things, told in a new, literate, musical way with affection, charm and infinite skill, and with song, word, and movement blending together to reveal character, establish atmosphere, and advance the story. Agnes De Mille’s ballet at the end of the first act, in which the central characters are deftly replaced by dancers and the story continues balletically, is lyric theatre at its most original and most brilliant.

Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn (1987): Incorporating songs seamlessly into the plot was unheard of until Rodgers and Hammerstein accomplished it with Oklahoma!

Alan Jay Lerner (1987): Oklahoma! was the most totally realized amalgamation of all the theatrical arts. The book was legitimate play writing, every song flowed from the dramatic action, and Agnes de Mille’s ballet at the end of Act One, in which Curly and Laurey were skillfully replaced by two dancers as the plot continued, was one of the most imaginative uses of choreography yet set in the theatre. Whereas Hammerstein was never the wit that Larry Hart was, he was far superior as a dramatic lyricist, and certainly never wrote a lyric that sang better. Lyrically, Oklahoma! was a masterful work, lighter than Hammerstein had been before with none of the “poetic” excesses that to me frequently marred some of his future writing. Dick’s music adjusted itself to the new collaboration, and together they produced a new voice and a style that was distinctly their own.

Gerald Mast (1987): The Rodgers and Hammerstein shows from Oklahoma! to The King and I confirmed both the conventions and the confidence of the American stage musical. By 1948 producers and audiences knew exactly what a book musical was supposed to be: a romantic drama of conflicting characters, alternately comic and dramatic, based on a literary source, ancient or modern, with at least eighteen musical slots, some sung, some danced, at least twelve in the first act. … With the question of form so clearly settled, the only remaining issue was style. How do you get that kind of character to sing? As in Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, making a musical meant creating characters rather than constructing an action. If the characters make sense, the action makes sense. And characters only make sense if their singing makes sense. … The score that found its stylistic answer created characters who simply couldn’t be imagined not singing or singing in any other way.

Lee Alan Morrow (1987): More than a quarter-century after the premiere of their last show together, the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II remains the benchmark against which audiences and professionals alike judge the worth of new musicals. … Rodgers and Hammerstein served as midwives to the musical theater we know today. The contemporary integration of words, music, story, and dance, each sustaining and intensifying the others, first came to fruition in Oklahoma!

Ken Mandelbaum (1989): No one ever revolutionized Broadway dance to the extent that Agnes de Mille did. Oklahoma! is generally considered to be the first show that fully integrated book, score, and dance, but such musicals as Show Boat, Pal Joey, and Lady in the Dark had already taken major steps in that direction. What was genuinely revolutionary and innovative about Oklahoma! ultimately comes down to de Mille and her contribution. … If earlier musicals such as Oklahoma! and On the Town integrated all the elements of musical theatre, West Side Story made it impossible to separate them.

Gene Lees (1990): Through the 1920s and ‘30s and ‘40s, the integration of songs and book grew more and more sophisticated, until in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! it reached a pinnacle.

Joseph Swain (1990): There are a number of reasons why a particular work of art might be considered a milestone in the history of its genre. It might introduce innovations of technique and style so convincing that they become highly influential. It might attract such wide acclaim that it cannot be ignored by the artists who come after, even if the acclaim eventually fades. It could stand as the first work of an important series, like the First Symphony of Beethoven. Or perhaps, in addition to all of these, it sets a new standard of artistry. All of these reasons can be found in the first musical play of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma! … The songs in Oklahoma! tell much more about the characters who sing them, but the dramatic situation is little different after the song than before, unless one considers the definition of character itself to be a dramatic act.
To compensate for this Rodgers and Hammerstein developed a method of integration that, while not really new, revolutionized thinking about the placement of songs in a musical play. It meant actually decreasing the number of songs, but arranging them within the play more skillfully. … This …. integration, where it seems as if the dialogue interrupts the song as much as the song interrupts the dialogue, creates the dramatic action that the character songs alone would lack. The dramatic continuity takes place across the numbers, rather than within them.

Thomas Hischak (1991): ” It was [Otto] Harbach who first suggested to Hammerstein the importance of strong story structure and a score that could be integrated with it. Hammerstein would carry this idea to fruition with Show Boat, Oklahoma! and other musical plays; but it was Harbach who first preached the basic principles. … The two men [Rodgers and Hammerstein] were not attempting to revolutionize the musical theatre when they worked on Away We Go!, as it was then called. They were just trying to tell a simple, direct story in musical terms. Rodgers enjoyed Hammerstein’s homespun, honest lyrics (in contrast to the showy, dazzling ones by Hart), and Hammerstein enjoyed working with Rodgers, whose musical ideas quickly blossomed from a simple phrase or character trait. They knew what they were doing was different but they never suspected just how different. Oklahoma!’s quiet, gentle opening scene, the down-to-earth characters, the absence of a chorus line, and the celebration of simple pleasures such as a picnic or a ride in a surrey – all of these rule-breaking devices were not intended to change musical theatre history. But when Oklahoma! opened these modest innovations did just that. For twenty years American musicals would shun sophisticated wit for a more honest approach. Earthy American values would rank above educated, worldly ones. Character songs would become the expected instead of the exceptional. Show Boat may have influenced Broadway through a gradual rippling effect; Oklahoma! came on like a tidal wave.
… The true musical play that Hammerstein first introduced with Show Boat and perfected with Oklahoma! is a major turning point in the history of the musical theatre. It raised the level of characterization, it presented thematic values, and it allowed story and song to coexist.

Ethan Mordden (1995): A great score is what makes a show a classic for the ages, but a solid book is what makes a show a hit in its season. … By the rules of its day Oklahoma! was bizarre; but Oklahoma! changed the rules. These now read: one, don’t start with a star; start with a story; two, don’t paste fun onto the show; find the fun within the action; and three, The songs and dances define the characters or further the narrative. … Oklahoma! opened in New York, swept the world, and announced the revolution in writing and staging of musicals. … What made Oklahoma! so great? Years later, Rodgers observed of it that “all the individual parts complement each other … The orchestrations sound the way the costumes look.” Hammerstein said it’s not the “tangibles” but the “spirit.” … the parts fitted together because the intentions behind the work were inspired and fearless.

Deena Rosenberg (1997): … the political trilogy [Strike up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake] was a departure both in the Gershwins’ work and more generally in American musical theater. Of Thee I Sing is often cited, along with Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat, as a precursor to Oklahoma! – one of the rare pre-1943 shows that closely integrated its score into its action. It comments upon it, mocks it, deflates it; often, it is the action.

Mark Steyn (2000): This is Hammerstein’s revolution: he changed the question. ‘What comes first – the music or the lyrics?’ says Betty Comden. ‘What comes first is the book – the character, the situation. You have a situation where a character is in a town and he’s lonely, so you write “Lonely Town”.’ … She’s citing her own fine ballad from On the Town (1944), a work heavily influenced by the previous season’s Oklahoma! ‘There was a phrase that was around at that time,’ her director George Abbot told me, ‘“the integrated musical”. And they lived by it.’ … It was Hammerstein who integrated the musical. Before him it was a careless rapture. … early musicals were, like operetta, a location; it was Hammerstein who, in expanding their horizons, made them a form. … ‘Oklahoma! changed everything,’ says Mark Bramble, librettist of 42nd Street and Barnum. ‘Oscar Hammerstein created a new kind of structure for a musical libretto which integrated all the elementsdialogue, lyrics, music, dance.’ … From Oklahoma! to Fiddler, the Broadway musical was one of the few art forms where box-office receipts and critical admiration went hand in hand.

Geoffrey Block (2003): Rodgers’s second partnership, with the venerable, reliable, and equally if less pyrotechnically talented Oscar Hammerstein 2nd (1895-1960), a librettist as well as lyricist, resulted in an impressive series of integrated and timeless musicals, beginning with Oklahoma!(1943).

Ken Bloom (2005): Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are considered by many to be the greatest of all Broadway musical theater teams. Their formula consisted of crafting well-integrated songs woven into a full-blooded book, the songs propelling the story and carefully reflecting the characters’ personalities in both the words and music. This method of constructing a musical has been emulated for all of the years since the team’s first hit show, Oklahoma!

Combines, combined, everything, triumphantly blended, integrated, the sum of them, artistic integrity, integrating, blending together, incorporating seamlessly, amalgamation, integration, perfected, woven, full-blooded … These descriptive terms are collectively and properly applied to only Oklahoma! and a distinct set of musical plays that succeeded (but anticipated, in part by Show Boat¸ Of thee I Sing, and Pal Joey. But what does it mean for a piece of musical theater art to be integrated?

Richard Rodger’s and Alan Lerner’s descriptions of the process of bringing a musical play to Broadway makes it very clear that the audience is an essential collaborator. Musical pieces added, scenes dropped, actors changed, even titles modified all happen in Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia, on the way to New York. Even before the first trial audience sees the first dress rehearsal, an anonymous public is constantly in the minds of those preparing the play: how the audience responds to the big song, laughs at the wrong time, produces no laughs at the right time. Their first-hand description leaves no room for doubt.

But an audience is not a single organism; it consists of several hundred individuals – and over the run of a very successful play, the numbers run to tens or hundreds of thousands. If the play is made into a motion picture, the audience grows into the tens of millions and more. They may well laugh aloud together, cry silently in unison across time and space. They are still individuals, with different histories, unique genes, and contrasting life situations. But a hidden commonality comes into view, as the story on stage or screen emerges.

Let’s try a kind of thought experiment, imagining oneself as a member of an audience of a noted musical play. As the characters are initially sketched and then enfleshed, as the plot advances, the drama on stage is taken into the mind, taps the memory and establishes links with the individual’s life. Imagination and myth merge and reality is transformed into fantasy without conscious realization of what has happened.

The stage is certainly there, concrete and distinctly not part of us, but what is happening on stage enters our conscious experience, and a distinct drama/comedy occurs within ourselves. As audience, we are participating in our collective response: laughing, crying, applauding, now restless, then uncomfortable, at times even transfixed. Our inner response is either reinforced or challenged by the outwardly expressed experience of our neighbors. Even their breathing, nearly inaudible sighs, coughs, and body movements have some effect. Nevertheless, the drama is very much interiorized and personalized.

The set that is the stage becomes a little world unto itself, an isolated room in which a little of each character becomes a projection of inner, hidden facets of the individual observer. The man in the audience finds an identity not only with the hero, but the other males: villain, foil, buffoon, and, curiously enough, with the females too: the heroine, vixen, ingénue, klutz, wise old woman... Inanimate objects become symbols of discontent, progress, regression, cleansing, restoration... The pressure of conflict and tension of misunderstanding become symbolic of internal stretching, fragmentation, hurt, and brokenness, while the resolution of plot – hero and heroine joined, villains vanquished, a new day dawning – become symbols of hope, integration, fulfillment.

The overture has already anticipated the story to come. In retrospect, the degree of integration of plot and music within the play permits the music to convey a sense of the impending drama, comedy, fear, pathos, and joy. The overture ends, the curtain goes up on a surrealistic corn field, lonely homestead (called Laurey’s farmhouse in the script), and a solitary old woman churning butter. The woman, Aunt Eller, continues her task as a tall young cowboy saunters onto the stage, declaring in song (with a near-operatic voice) that what we are seeing is a kind of Eden, with healthy tall cornstalks, quiet contented cattle, and sounds which are all music. The song sets the stage even more than does the set. The pastoral content of “O what a beautiful morning” belies the conflict which is to come. Just as a maturing young man is convinced he is in control of his world, then, too, the world must be in harmony with him.

The confidence, even cockiness with which Curly deals with the world is soon to be shaken as he encounters that which he cannot directly control: the contrary, “irrational” feminine and dark, obsessed, even evil shadows. All is not in harmony. But then, even in the words of the first song, there is the subtle hint: A young maverick, an unbranded calf belonging to no one, winks her eye. Like the wink of a strange, attractive woman, the meaning is ambiguous. Is there a shared secret here or the first stirrings of surprise or even conflict? Adventure or crisis? Who is in control of this developing story? That operatic quality voices are typical of the male and female leads cast in the Broadway and cinema productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the Forties and early Fifties is probably also significant. Are there more unnatural and artificial performing art forms than opera and ballet? None of the other singing members of the cast are close to operatic in their style. And, in conventional presentations of Oklahoma!, the acting leads are replaced by dancing equivalents in the dream ballet that closes the first act.

There is also the curious ambiguity of the explicit and implicit role of the sung music. The very first song is to be accepted as a song within the frame of the story. Curly describes himself as singing. Laurey’s description of his song is, of course, purposefully absurd. Only some of the remaining musical pieces are explicitly part of the story, however. It is rare, after all that we sing to one another in everyday life. The initial artificiality of Laurey and Curly’s relationship is thereby underlined.

For the individual audience member, the objective view of the play consists of a number of actor-singers and dancers on a decorated stage telling a story. The subjective view takes in each of the characters and their progressive interaction. With one another and connects them with elements of the individual member’s own experience, so as to make sense of the musical play as it evolves on the stage.

There are five principal male characters and three primary female roles (four, counting the peddler’s eventual bride) in Oklahoma! Part of Curly’s and Laurey’s “problems” (their immaturity, artificiality, foolish dishonesty, and selfishness) is manifest in the supporting characters: villain, comic lovers, dream-dancers, wise old woman. Curly dominates the play with his strong, swaggering baritone, but Laurey is the pivotal character. We are allowed to “read” her mind (and hers only) – in the dream ballet. The surface question of who will be her escort to the social is fraught with greater consequences than the conscious Laurey has guessed. In a sense, the “dream” awakes her to “reality.”

It is clear from the beginning that Laurey and Curly belong together; and Will and Ado Annie also are “meant for one another”: Farm girl Laurey and cowboy Curly; farm girl Annie and cowboy Will. By quirks of illogic, stubbornness, immaturity, and circumstance, Laurey is almost disastrously linked with Jud, and Annie, most comically with the peddler, Ali Hakim. Come the social, a fight inevitably breaks out between farmer and cowman. Disorder exists at every level of the play. It is not until the evil Jud is dead and the peddler out of the picture, that Curly and Laurey can sing honestly and openly to one another and to the rest of their world, while Annie and Will anticipate what can only be a raucous wedded life.

Interpolation: The reader who read through to the end of the paragraph before the last in Chapter 1 may have (more than once) flipped back to the cover and asked: Does this chapter belong to this book? Did the publisher make a mistake? What possibly can a popular musical play from the last century have to do, in any way, shape, or integrated form with entropy? Musical theater is one of the popular performing arts; it has nothing to do with a nineteenth century scientific revolution, correct?

Then, with the next paragraph, the reader might grasp a glimmer and make a guess based on the simple assertion: “Disorder exists at every level of the play.” Somewhere, someplace one might have heard that entropy has something to do with disorder: greater entropy means less order, doesn’t it? But, at the end of the play, order is achieved, so entropy must have decreased. But, doesn’t entropy always increase? What does Oklahoma! have to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

The drama of human life can be considered in part to represent the struggle of apparent opposites: male/female, honesty/dishonesty, eros/sublimation, charm/crudity. In Oklahoma! it is resolution of the conflicts of opposites that is sought (in some cases, resolution involves recognition of complementarity; in others, defeat of an enemy).

Early on, the strutting, too clever, independent cowboy Curly in confronting his male opposite (the seething, too quiet, slow-witted intense farmhand Jud) absurdly and shockingly (not to mention, comically) tries to persuade Jud to kill himself. But the time is not yet right. Jud has a function to perform. Laurey is still ignorant of masculine power; her naïveté must be overcome. Similarly, Curly’s overconfidence in his own masculinity must be humbled; he cannot take the feminine for granted. In parallel, comic cowboy Will’s vincible ignorance must be dealt with, particularly the double standard he imposes on Annie. There are the male characters: Curly and Jud; Will and Hakim. Then there are Laurey and Ado Annie and Aunt Eller. Curly and Will are the straight and comic heroes; Jud and Hakim the straight and comedy villains. Laurey must choose between Curly and Jud – Annie between Will and Ali Hakim. There is the added background of open range (cowboys Curly and Will) versus farming-domesticity (Laurey; Ado Annie, Aunt Eller, Jud); untamed territory and future State. There is no oil yet and no mention of Indians (the latter omission heightening the artificiality of the story).

The key dramatic question is: how are Curly and Laurey to be united given their immature pride and foolishness and, especially, the impending threat posed by the mystery man, Jud? The question is complemented by Ado Annie’s quandary: whom shall she choose: Dull, unimaginative Will Parker or “exotic, romantic” Ali Hakim? Jud is the dark, brooding shadow man with the mysterious, even ominous past. Ali Hakim, the unclothed girls on Hakim’s and Jud’s cards, and the Kansas City burlesque stage suggest the power of hidden eros beneath the surface of each triangle.

Despite the dominance of archetypal elements in each character, every one of the major roles has attributes of a real person. Even the evil Jud has some (though very few) sympathetic qualities, and Curly’s crude attempt to encourage Jud’s suicide adds some tarnish to the hero’s image. Insofar as the interaction of the characters with one another is concerned, however, much of their communication appears to be indirect and artificial. For example, it seems that neither of the two principals really appreciates the full humanity of their opposite. As attractive as Curly appears in the beginning, his unwillingness to directly ask Laurey to the social is particularly frustrating, since Laurey refuses to show any interest in return; after all, she has not been explicitly invited. The facades they each exhibit (transparent to Aunt Eller and audience, but not to each other) lay the foundation for the drama to come.

Curly emphasizes the masculine archetype (“the best bronc-buster, best bull-dogger, Curly-headed, and bow-legged”)? What else should Laurey want? And he foolishly assumes that Laurey would want to socialize with him despite (or even because-of) his high self-regard. Curly’s stubborn self-centeredness almost forces Laurey to turn his indirect invitation down, and accept the blandishments of Jud. Despite her profound fears of the hired man, Jud, at least, is never indirect. In his dark morose world, there is some sense of reality: he sees a unique, even if distorted, worth and value in Laurey. He believes that he does not “deserve” her, but wants her anyway. In this respect, Jud is the shadow of Curly. Curly refuses to acknowledge his desire for Laurey; Laurey is supposed to desire him. The shock of Laurey’s acceptance of Jud awakens Curly to action and too-long delayed humbling.

The presence of the comic could-be lovers, Will and Ado Annie, highlights another facet to the Curly-Laurey problem. The two leads seem to lack a sense of humor; they take themselves all too seriously. Curly’s non-invitation could have been seen by Laurey as the teasing irony Curly intends; similarly, her denigration of Curly’s singing (which in fact she has herself echoed) could be interpreted by Curly as similarly ironic and teasing, but neither is willing to recognize that they can be the object of gentle ridicule without undermining their own value. Curly could have called himself the “best baritone” in all of the territory, along with enumerating his bronc-busting talents; but clearly, the subject is not open for debate. Thus Jud’s hostility to folks who think themselves better than others (especially himself) is not difficult to understand; alas, Jud also lacks totally any sense of humor, even pathos.

In order to vanquish the external rival for Laurey’s affections, it is necessary for Curly to give up everything he owns (most especially the saddle and gun essential for him to continue as a cowboy); he must so humble himself as to become a farmer. One of the more comic earlier events in the play, the dance of the farmers and the cowmen which degenerates into a brawl, symbolizes how profound the self-humiliation of Curly must be; to give up the status and freedom of the cowboy to become a domesticated farmer is not an easy step to take. In parallel Laurey is impelled to take a most frightening chance as she dumps Jud in the middle of nowhere, guaranteeing his future enmity, but, at the same time, protecting herself from his clear and present dangerous advances.

Curly must defer and be humbled; Laurey must risk and assert. Each must exercise opposite gender and unconscious same-gender archetypal qualities in order to achieve their unspoken goals. The need for conscious acknowledgment of their mutual love is clearly expressed early on through the song “People will say we’re in love”. The closest either comes to explicit admission of love in the song is Curly’s response that Laurey’s hand is so grand in his. The acknowledgement necessarily mean the loss of conscious capabilities, however, as Curly must still confront the hiding, scheming Jud. In the emergence of honesty and humility in Curly, the same qualities which Jud, in his perversity, already possessed, their very perversion must be dealt with in order for survival of Curly and Laurey to be assured: Jud must die. The best of the shadow is appropriated; the worst is eradicated. There is gain and loss inherent in change.

The parallel uniting of Will and Annie, the comic leads, cements the sense of fulfillment in Laurey and Curly’s marriage. Will, the not-so-smart cowboy must rely on help from the trapped peddler, in order to snare his elusive bride. Ado Annie turns out to be smarter than previously thought. Her closing warning to Will is to never take her for granted. And wasn’t that Curly’s problem from the very beginning? The anima is rarely really hidden. Every man “knows” how to be “feminine”, if only in parody. His first teacher is his mother, after all. The problem with the anima is not so much that it is unconscious, but is ignored.

The unconscious level at which Oklahoma! operates is never more clearly emphasized as in the famous ballet. The musical is, again, known for full “integration” of music, dialogue, and dance. If its fame is justly deserved, it must serve a dramatic function. Joseph Swain (1990) has challenged this assumption, suggesting that the details of the ballet, particularly since they involve apparently indiscriminate reprises of previous songs, make no dramatic sense. He especially objects to the dance-hall women, come to dream life from Jud’s pin-ups, who dance to “I Cain’t Say No”. Since the original context of the song humorously portrays the confusion of late adolescent girl, Ado Annie, one might question the bawdy context of this part of the ballet. The answer is that the dream ballet is not at all concerned with Annie; it is concerned with Laurey: her relationship with Curly and the implications of the ominous presence of Jud with the dancehall women. Her own latent eros is stirred by the raw assertiveness of Jud, who wants the real thing, not picture postcards. The song sung by Annie is certainly humorous, in part because of its double entendre. But, there is a truth in the dual meaning which the dream points out.

The dream ballet occurs in a surrealistic frontier town, somewhat like, yet unlike the Oklahoma frontier. Civilization is impinging on the territory, with horseless carriages and tales of seven-story skyscrapers and telephones in the big city. But the ballet lacks anything up-to-date, and there is little that is familiar; the stage props are even more artificial than those in the rest of the play. Laurey’s dream is within a non-rational, unconscious world; powerful archetypal images point to truths which she has consciously avoided.

Some of the music reprised for the ballet was not “witnessed” by Laurey in their initial offering, especially “Kansas City”, “Pore Jud”, and “Lonely Room,” despite wanting to “get into that girl’s head” (Agnes de Mille, quoted in Moddren, 1995). In part this may reflect the limited number of relevant musical pieces from the first act in which Laurey was visibly present. So, the musical theater convention of music portraying mood and character rather than consciousness reasserts itself.

Curly’s encounter with his unconscious is largely symbolized, not by a dream, but by his visit to the smokehouse: dust and cobwebs, grimy bed, tobacco ads, the postcards, and covers off the Police Gazette. Curiously, Curly shows only passing interest in the Gazette covers and picture cards; they might give him “idys”. Rather, he begins an incredible game with Jud, indirectly demonstrating his contempt for the man, while trying to determine just what attraction Jud might have for Laurey. Curly’s behavior is almost shocking and certainly dangerous; it is difficult to rationalize the Curly who cleverly attempts to encourage Jud to do himself in with the Curly who sings of “corn as high as a elephant’s eye”, and of “isinglass curtains ya can pull right down.” It is as if in his encounter with Jud, the “Jud” within Curly starts to come out. Curly’s control on his sexual drive, averting his eyes from Jud’s pornographic cards, is apparently greater than his control on his innate aggression. The encounter of Curly with his shadow is bound to be eventful, but it is not destined to be fulfilled in the dark recesses of the smokehouse, but out in the open air, with Jud’s failed murder attempt. Ironically, Jud does end up killing himself, accidentally, in the encounter with Curly, but not before Curly has explicitly affirmed his love for Laurey and publicly confronted Jud.

Only the lead players have a distinct identity or color, achieved by their interaction with others, or, largely in Laurey’s case, illuminated by the dream ballet. The ballet additionally implies that the desired masculine must be humbled, in the apparent death of “Curly” in the dream. There is little Laurey can do prevent the “death” of Curly; in fact, she helps bring it about. Thus, there is a kind of inevitability inherent in the plot of Oklahoma!, just as there is a kind of inevitability in the lives individual people lead (only in retrospect, however).

The internal interaction of the individual member of the audience with the play is hierarchical. The two leading characters are initially one-dimensional. Curly and Laurey are almost too sweet, almost like royalty in many an operetta. In their initial game of pretended insult and offense, a little of the sugar goes sour, and then as they interact with the threatening character of Jud, even some bitterness is tasted. The sympathy or antipathy the audience members feel for the characters depends in part on their own experience, but, quite clearly, few would have any hopes for either Jud or Ali Hakim. There is little to Jud that is sympathetic, other than his reputation for reliable, hard work, and, perhaps, his shunning by the rest of the rural community. Hakim as alien and seducer is played for its comic value. Like Jud, however, Hakim exudes an appreciation for women (however superficial; they provide his livelihood, after all, and he is not shy about desiring their favors) that Curly and Will seem to lack. (An undercurrent of the play is the apparent undervaluing of sexuality by the dominant men. Curly and Laurey’s wedding night is interrupted by the “traditional” shivaree.)

The tensions of masculine-feminine, farmer-cowman, sexuality-repression, popular-outcast, frontier-modern are gradually worked through in the play and in the mind-experience of the audience, achieving fulfillment in the climax of marriage, statehood (celebrated in the singing of the title song), and in the anticlimax of the death of Jud. The closing celebrates the joys of domesticity and removal of facade: “Let people say we’re in love”.

The drama-comedy of Oklahoma! becomes a microcosm of the lives most people would like to live. And the outward lives mirror the inner struggles of growth. The typical man lives out of his masculinity (but without a rich baritone), but at various crisis points, whether due to interior or exterior forces, is confronted with the need to change: to deal with the undervalued, unconscious masculine traits and to allow the feminine characteristics to emerge, as well. The facilitation of inner growth often requires humbling of the dominant characteristics and acknowledgement of the shadow tendencies (symbolized by death), and the emergence of the gender-opposite characteristics (symbolized by and even accomplished through courtship).

The process is not smooth, nor without pain and suffering. The success of a play such as Oklahoma! is rooted in its ability to capture the process of human maturation in such a way that it corresponds with the inner and outer desires, if not experience of the audience. The exhilaration of a theater encounter manifests the resonance of the onstage performance with the inner drama of one’s life. So it is in the climactic piece: the first verse of “Oklahoma,” sung by Curly, becomes an ensemble effort, with full chorus. Everything is together, in harmony, except the individual voice of Laurey is not obvious (because Jud still has to be deal with?). Then, in the anticlimax, Curly and Laurey sing a duet-reprise of “O, what a beautiful morning!” and “People will say we’re in love”, the latter changed to “Let people say…” The hero and heroine are free of their self-consciousness, willingly and publicly expressing their love for one another, while the villain has been vanquished.

The grand metaphor of integration, fulfillment, and completion is achieved in the typical musical play, with or without some bitterness, pain, suffering, and death. Resolution of the plot gives the audience a temporary vicarious experience of integration and fulfillment. To the extent the individual audience member recognizes himself or herself in several of the characters, the experience of completion is not without its rewards. At least the experience of the individual has been recognized outside of himself or herself. Some degree of commonality of the human journey has been recognized and identified.

Still another kind of commonality present in this play (and in many others) needs to be more concretely emphasized. The two love-triangles complement one another, with the comedy triangle bringing additional meaning to the primary triangle. Similarly, the dream ballet provides added meaning to Laurey’s dilemma. There’s a “wedding” in the ballet that anticipates the wedding that culminates Curly and Laurey’s bumpy courtship. Imagined death in the smokehouse and death in the ballet are prophetic of Curly’s ego-death, and the eventual violent death of Jud. Eros in Will’s account of his Kansas City experience, in the smokehouse, in the dream, and in the lens of the “little wonder,” and the shivaree must be dealt with.

The repeated themes of the play, in both musical leit motives and parallels in plot, imply a kind of self-similarity in word, lyric, music, action, and dance. Each element of the play produces coherence with succeeding elements, bringing out hidden meaning. It is rather like applying a decryption code to an encoded message. What is obscure in a single component of the play becomes clearer when illuminated by a succeeding component. All is not perfect in the initial “beautiful morning”. The winking eye of a maverick heifer anticipates what is to come. Quickly Curly learns that all is not as he expects. Laurey’s reluctance is further complicated by the challenge Jud presents. In parallel, Will’s triumphant arrival to claim Ado Annie is quickly deflated when the $50 prerequisite is revealed as already, and stupidly, spent. Add one more complication, the peddler, and Will is not in control, either. A message develops and is progressively reinforced.

Through Laurey’s eyes, things are not the way she wants them, from the very beginning of the play. Curly takes her for granted. Jud appreciates her value, but Jud is dangerous. Like the dream, Laurey has little control over what happens, except to run away and call for help. At first she runs the wrong way and asks for help from the wrong person. Ado Annie is not in control, either, subject to the “charms” of whichever male she is with. Like Laurey, Annie runs for “help,” but from a slick, alien charmer.

There is still another level of integration present in the play when it was originally presented:

When the Fed’ral Marshal pronounces Curly’s killing a justifiable act of self defense, Hammerstein invokes the very rationale for sending American men from states like Oklahoma overseas to kill the Jud Frys of the world, in 1943 called Nazis. (Mast, 1987).

Remove him [Jeeter or Jud], and not only can Curly marry Laurey, but the territory can enter the Union and its folk marry their history and future to the American epic. … Oklahoma! includes this idea but builds upon it as well. Not only can Oklahoma become a state: Oklahoma must. Statehood is an affirmation of individuality within citizenship, of liberty within the corporation. But only when antagonistic fractions make peace can the Union emerge. From a single line in Riggs, Aunt Eller’s “Why, we’re territory folks – we orter hang together,” came “The Farmer and the Cowman” … Yes, but only when individuals pursue a fair and responsible and personal agenda can the Union prosper. (Moddren, 1995)

A musical play such as Oklahoma! succeeds by an integration of word, music, and dance which reinforce a message whose coherence becomes apparent only in retrospect, in its historical context, and in the contemporaneity of an uneasy nation. Consciously or unconsciously, Riggs, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Mamoulian, and Agnes de Mille forged a classic of internal self-similarity and consistency which continues to delight audiences more than sixty years later. And, it served as a model for the musical stage of the next thirty years.

But, was Oklahoma! really the first “integrated” musical play? What about Show Boat, in particular? The answer to that question may lie in the wholeness and completeness of the later play: evil is vanquished, two couples (three counting the peddler and shrill-voiced Gertie) are united, and the territory is prepared to become a state. The earlier musical play is far less tidy, with a broken marriage, continuing intolerance and oppression of blacks, and a big river that continues to roll along – in these respects an internal self-similarity is achieved. However, some of Show Boat’s musical and, especially, dance pieces are less relevant to either plot or character. Can entropy illuminate these questions?

Constructing a Masterpiece

The story of the building of Oklahoma! contains elements its very development which are reflected in the final product. Begin with Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs: most of the principals as well as the plotline already existed, and, at the urging of Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild, traditional folk songs (such as “Green Grow the Lilacs”) were incorporated into the 1932 play. While the initial run of the play was disappointing, contributing to the financial woes of the Guild that came to threaten its very existence by the early 1940s, Helburn saw in a summer revival of the play the seeds of a true musical play. While the Guild certainly needed a major popular success in order to stay in existence, it is apparent that Helburn was driven by an artistic muse more than a financial goad. Helburn sought a team of composer and lyricist who might appropriate her vision and make it real.

Three weeks after the premiere [of Rodgers and Hart’s By Jupiter in early June, 1942] the New York Times carried this item: “The Theatre Guild announces that Richard Rodgers will write the music, Lorenz Hart the lyrics and Oscar Hammerstein II the book for its adaptation of the play, Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs. The authors will commence work shortly.” (Marx and Clayton, 1976)

The news item is puzzling because multiple accounts indicate that indeed Rodgers had been approached by Helburn and was said to be intrigued by the idea of musicalizing Green Grow the Lilacs, Hart had no interest in the project. Accounts further state that Rodgers did not approach Hammerstein until after Hart’s rejection. And, prior to being approached by Rodgers, Hammerstein was said to have discussed the prospect with his on-and-off partner, Jerome Kern. All the principals are gone now, so the puzzle seems likely to remain.

By Rodgers and Hammerstein taking on the project, a librettist (book-writer) would not be needed: Hammerstein did double duty: lyrics and book. The next step would be a dance director (now known as choreographer) and director. Agnes de Mille, who had persuaded Aaron Copland to provide music for a western ballet (originally conceived at a summer dance school outside of cow-town Steamboat Springs, Colorado), produced and danced in the now classic Rodeo. De Mille sought the dance director position, and with support from Larry Langner and Helburn of the Guild and Hammerstein, Rodgers finally agreed. Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the movie Love Me Tonight, a Jeannette Macdonald-Maurice Chevalier vehicle, was familiar to Rodgers; he and Hart wrote the songs for the movie, including the especially delightful “Isn’t It Romantic,” which travels from Chevalier to Macdonald via numerous intermediaries long before they meet. The executive team was almost complete: Producers Langner and Helburn; Composer Rodgers, Lyricist and Librettist Hammerstein, choreographer de Mille, and director Mamoulian.

Add art and costume directors, stage managers, and, yes, the actors and dancers. Conventional musical theater relied on a few key stars, such as an Ethel Merman, the Marx brothers, Mary Martin, or Ray Bolger. Helburn wanted Groucho Marx for the peddler while Rodgers sought Mary Martin for Laurey. Mary Martin bowed out from consideration, while the others were not convinced that Groucho was a good fit. And, there was the budget to consider. Instead, relatively unknown, but talented actors and dancers were found, largely from among those that Rodgers, Hammerstein, and de Mille already knew from personal experience in prior shows and ballets.

The method of selection of the performing talent proved to be serendipitous and foreshadowed much of what the creative process became, culminating in the March 31, 1943, opening. That is, for the most part, the actors and dancers became the characters; the characters did not become the persona of the performer. The characters were part of the fabric of the story, and the needs of the story produced the form of the lyrics, music, and dance. 

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