There are only two shows nominated for the Tony award for best musical revival this Sunday: Kiss Me, Kate and Oklahoma!. It reminds me of 1995, when the best musical category was a straight contest between Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Sunset Boulevard. Back then, Sunset Boulevard walked away the winner.
If pundits are correct, Oklahoma! will be victorious this Sunday. If it is, its victory could prove to be the most significant of the night, heralding in a new era for the musical revival.
Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma! is a radical reinterpretation of this 1943 musical that has sharply divided audiences. The orchestra has been reduced to a small Dixie band, the “bright golden haze on the meadow” has become a shimmering line of tinsel strips that fill Circle in the Square’s ceiling, audience members sit at trestle tables on stage and real chilli is served to them at the interval.
Meanwhile, there are also some significant changes to the content itself: the character of Jud Fry is made much more creepy and psychotic than is usual and his scenes opposite Curly are played out in total darkness; the dream ballet now opens Act II and is a modern dance interpretation; and the ending feels more like Greek tragedy than a hoedown between a cowman and a farmer.
If it does win, there is potential to launch further exploration and re-examination of more classic musicals, but I would also sound a note of caution. Something similar has already happened to plays on Broadway with the arrival of director Ivo van Hove. His radical revival of A View from the Bridge sent critics into a palpable frenzy and launched a period within mainstream drama of classic plays being deconstructed and radically re-imagined.
Although subsequent works directed by him have received mixed responses, Van Hove has found a loyal band of disciples both from audience and industry alike, along with – crucially – other directors. He has become a ‘star’ director. His name has become as famous to a new generation of theatre directors as Harold Prince, Trevor Nunn and Peter Brook were in eras before him, and people have tried to mimic his approach – with varying results.
Van Hove himself has tended to be more successful with revivals of existing titles over new work. That’s unsurprising – classic works already have an identity, which means change is more obvious and reactions for or against it will always be stronger. For directors and producers closely watching his progression, it was therefore only a matter of time before a similar approach would be applied to musicals.
Fish’s reinterpretation of Oklahoma! is extreme, and this is reflected in his billing. Aside from the composers, he is the only other name prominently displayed on the theatre canopy. He has not gone quite as far as to add his own name to the writing credits (unlike director Simon Stone who chose to place himself as writer before either Ibsen or Lorca on his revisited productions of The Wild Duck and Yerma respectively).
Broadly, Fish sticks to the original script, but his production makes other reinterpretations of classic musicals (such as Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof) feel quite tame by comparison. In fact, the changes are so extreme, one might question whether Fish truly loves Oklahoma! or whether the the show has been chosen as more of a ‘vehicle’ for his directorial style. If that is the case, does it matter?
Fish has done a fine job at making his audiences feel clever, and in many places, his production brilliantly succeeds – but it also highlights that the book and score are robust enough to withstand any deconstruction.
At other times, though, it felt like change for change’s sake, fuelled by a deliberate desire to shock any musical puritans in the audience. This creates some imbalances in character development: most notably Aunt Eller who often feels relegated to the sidelines, while supporting players Ado Annie and Ali Hakim (superbly performed by Ali Stroker and Will Brill) come to frequently dominate the show. Meanwhile, his attempt to strip this musical back and reflect the primal sexual instincts of its characters, resulted in the production feeling oddly sexless.
Deconstruction has become the new rock’n’roll in commercial theatre: Oklahoma! on Broadway will soon be followed by Van Hove’s reinvention of West Side Story. But as producers try to repeat a winning blueprint, it’s important it does not become the status quo, a tradition in itself.
The reason for revisiting and reviving any musical should be about the value of its content, and there are ways of radically reapproaching shows that also embrace the original spirit of the piece. This is a point that is currently being eloquently underlined by the Off-Broadway Yiddish revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Were it to have been on Broadway this season, it would have certainly turned the Tony award for best musical revival into a real race.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan