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Howard Sherman: Rethinking classic musicals gives us a glimpse of what America can be in 2018

Will Parker and Ado Andy in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Oklahoma!. Photo: Jenny Graham Will Parker and Ado Andy in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Oklahoma!. Photo: Jenny Graham
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Just as Company’s Bobby is now being performed as Bobbie in the West End, the revising of gender roles – and other key aspects – in classic musicals is on the rise.

US musicals don’t get much more classic than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the first collaboration of the famed duo in 1943. Opening in the middle of the Second World War, Oklahoma! was viewed as a celebration of American values.

Stories abound of servicemen and women catching the show en route to or on their way back from service in Europe. A bright golden haze has suffused the show ever since, even though this staple of the American theatre has always had a serious side.

While Oklahoma! has been mined for its deeper meanings before, 2018 served up a trio of revisionist Oklahoma!s across the US.

For his inaugural production at the Denver Center Theatre Company, artistic director Chris Coleman staged it with an all-black company, an approach he had previously explored at Portland Center Stage in Oregon.

Wrapping up a summer-long run in the repertory of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this weekend is Bill Rauch’s take. In it, the principal romantic couple, Curly and Laurey, are both played by women, and the secondary romantic couple, Will and Ado Annie – renamed Andy – played by men.

Daniel Fish’s intimate Oklahoma!, staged with a cast of 12, runs at Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse until November 11. It features a semi-immersive staging, touches such as an infrared video rendering of one scene otherwise played entirely in the dark, the famed dream ballet rescored to sound like Jimi Hendrix’s take on The Star-Spangled Banner, and intermission vegetarian chilli and cornbread for the entire audience.

Oklahoma! review at St Ann’s Warehouse, New York – ‘a startling reimagining of a classic musical’

Most notably, Fish’s production is capped by an ending that, while retaining the exact dialogue of the script and score, completely alters a key moment and, as a result, our concluding perception of the major characters and indeed their futures after the show has ended.

Multi-racial or non-white casting of Oklahoma! is not new. Molly Smith directed the show at Arena Stage in 2010 with a Latino Curly and a black Aunt Eller and Laurey, among others, in 2010. Trinity Repertory in Rhode Island stirred up some controversy in 2016 with a production in which of the major characters only Will and Jud were black, leading to protests by students from Brown University, who saw racial stereotyping in the casting.

I’ve seen only a couple of these stagings, and read about the others, so I can’t assess how they compare. But they demonstrate how this vintage musical remains a vital template for exploring the American character.

The confluence of Oklahoma!s in 2018 may be an accident, but as I was told once by a journalism veteran: two is a coincidence while three is a trend. Is it possible that at a time of division in this country, this 75-year-old musical is being retooled as a way of repositioning how we think about the American people and American life? Is it about embracing race, ethnicity, and gender all in service of a story set before there were 50 United States and our national sensibilities, let alone our nation, were still being formed?

I look forward to seeing how other so-called ‘old-fashioned musicals’, while staying faithful to the text and spirit of their original incarnations, can expand for a new era, in ways that unequivocally stand for an inclusive America and an inclusive theatre, making audiences rethink what these shows have the capacity to tell us.

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