Oklahoma! is back — but this isn’t your grandparents’ Broadway musical.
This spring, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1943 musical Oklahoma! returns to Broadway as a surprising reinvention of a masterpiece. Throwing out everything audiences take for granted about a theatrical touchstone, this new production finds fresh intimacy and urgency in the familiar tale of a love triangle among settlers in the western territories in 1906. As director Daniel Fish says: “Leave your expectations outside.”
The rule-breaking production has already won over critics. After attracting early attention in a 2015 premiere at Bard College in upstate New York, Oklahoma! played a sold-out run in the fall at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. There it earned raves for its fresh, stripped-down staging, its vibrant cast (including fan favorites Rebecca Naomi Jones and Mary Testa), and its bluegrass-infused take on the score.
The unconventional approach is the brainchild of director Fish, who found themes and nuance in Oklahoma! that surprised even him. “I discovered a more complex, richer, and more unsettling piece than I thought was there,” he says. “And a more generous piece.”
Audiences are in for a few surprises too, as Fish and his collaborators stage the familiar in unfamiliar ways. For example, the traditional orchestral sound of the score — which features some of musical theater’s most beloved tunes, including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” as well as the title song — has been fully reimagined for a small band, using instruments more common to bluegrass than to Broadway.
“You hear it in a new way, because you’re hearing something familiar in a new voice.”
“You take lines of music that are usually played by a full orchestra section and you put them on a single solo instrument, and that’s like plucking that line,” says Daniel Kluger, the composer behind the new orchestrations and arrangements. “You hear it in a new way, because you’re hearing something familiar in a new voice.”
Kluger’s work lends the score an unexpected sound that fits right in with the homespun setting of the show. But musical-theater purists needn’t fret. “I’m not simplifying or dumbing down the music,” Kluger notes. “I didn’t reharmonize anything. I just changed what instrument it’s played on.”
In addition to all those well-known songs, Oklahoma! boasts perhaps the most famous dance sequence in the history of musical theater: the dream ballet. Agnes de Mille’s original choreography is legendary, and has been faithfully re-created for most subsequent productions.
But this new Oklahoma! has an entirely new, and boldly modern, dream ballet. John Heginbotham, the contemporary dancer and choreographer who created the new sequence, is well aware that the ground he treads on is hallowed. “Agnes de Mille was a total genius and pioneer,” he says. “She wasn’t just making dances; she was changing the way things happened in theater.”
Rather than re-create de Mille’s dance moves, Heginbotham has aimed to match the impulses behind them. “We’re endeavoring to do something that speaks to the heart of this show, which I think is what de Mille was trying to do with the original production,” he explains. “Our dream ballet is more ambiguous and more open to interpretation. We want to give people a little space to think about what’s happening in the show. Whatever they experience during our dream ballet, they’re not wrong. They’re right.”
Like that new dance sequence, the overall production aims to uncover the ways in which this well-known story touches on the contradictions inherent in America itself. “What continues to strike me is the proximity of pleasure and joy to menace and violence,” Fish says. “They are side-by-side throughout the show, and that feels like a very American idea. Within Oklahoma! is this story of community and violence, and the need for community to create an outsider, and the way that impulse runs very deep in America.”
That theme has only gained further resonance in the years since this Oklahoma! debuted in 2015, Fish adds. “The gender issues in the piece speak louder now, and I think the issues of violence speak a lot louder too. There’s a sense of the importance and complexity of community, and of the conflict within that, that feels even hotter.”
“The emotional and dramatic experience come through, regardless of what instruments you play.”
For its creators, this untraditional Oklahoma! underscores the brilliance of a masterpiece in an entirely faithful way. “I hope we honor Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original work by revealing how well-built these songs are,” Kluger says. “The emotional and dramatic experience come through, regardless of what instruments you play.”
Fish, too, views the show as a testament to the genius of a classic. “The more time you spend with Oklahoma!, the more it keeps revealing aspects of itself to you,” he says. “I’m still learning about it. That’s the sign of a great work.”