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Oklahoma: The show that changed our view of the musical. Twice

PUBLISHED: 16:41 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:41 20 March 2017

Ben Child as Curley and Tess Smith as Laurey in Irving Stage Company's production of Oklahoma. Picture Andy Abbott

Ben Child as Curley and Tess Smith as Laurey in Irving Stage Company's production of Oklahoma. Picture Andy Abbott

Archant

Oklahoma was a game-changer. Christian Jenner, director of a new production at Bury Theatre Royal, talks about the appeal of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.

Ben Child as Curly and Adam Thurkettle as Jud Fry. in Irving Stage Company's production of Oklahoma at Bury Theatre Royal. Picture Andy AbbottBen Child as Curly and Adam Thurkettle as Jud Fry. in Irving Stage Company's production of Oklahoma at Bury Theatre Royal. Picture Andy Abbott

It was the show that completely changed the way musical theatre is staged. Oklahoma was a first and it has remained one of the greats since it burst onto Broadway in middle of WW2. A total box office smash, it was composer Richard Rodgers’ first collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II after his long and brilliant association with Lorenz Hart.

What made it different was that it became the first real book musical in which the songs and dances were completely integrated into the plot, featuring themes or motifs that recur throughout the piece, adding drama and drive. It opened a new chapter in the way shows were written, designed and produced and ushered in the Golden Age of American musical theatre.

It ran for five years, a quite remarkable record at the time. The Tony Awards did not exist then but Oklahoma moved into the history books by winning a special Pulizer Prize, America’s top award for excellence in the arts.

The show, set in 1906, is based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, about the bad blood between the settlers and the cowboys who lost their free ranges in Oklahoma Territory when farmers were given plots and money by the government to till the land and produce something other than cattle.

The play was not a success but it was later staged with added folk songs and square dances and a producer spotted its potential as a musical. It was offered to Rodgers and Hart, but by then Hart had sunk into alcoholism, was unreliable and Rodgers approached Hammerstein, who knew the play and leapt at the chance. It was the start of something big because the partnership allowed both Rodgers and Hammerstein to follow their favoured way of writing. Hammerstein liked to complete a lyric before it was set to music, an arrangement Rodgers also preferred. With Hart it had been the other way round, although still very successful.

Emily Smith as Ado Annie and Tess Smith as Laurey in Irving Stage Company's production of Oklahoma. Picture Andy AbbottEmily Smith as Ado Annie and Tess Smith as Laurey in Irving Stage Company's production of Oklahoma. Picture Andy Abbott

Oklahoma tells the rocky love story of cowboy Curly McLain with farm girl Laurey and there’s a secondary romance between another cowboy, Will Parker, and his flirtatious fiancée, Ado Annie, the girl who tells us in song that when chaps are nice to her she “cain’t say no.” Also involved is the sinister farm worker Jud Fry who wants Laurey for himself.

The ground-breaking show is the new challenge for the Irving Stage Company at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.

Director Christian Jenner says it was chosen in consultation with the theatre “because we have the skills to carry it off and because we felt it would bring in some new actors – and it has.”

The company will have fewer problems with the American accent than some for several reasons. Very usefully their Laurey, Tess Smith, hails from Georgia in the US and is now living in Brandon “and another member of the cast comes from Missouri, the State next to Oklahoma, and he’s working with us to see that the language is up to snuff.

“It is also helpful that the libretto is written in dialect, so it is very clear how things are supposed to sound and I’m very encouraged by the way people are working at it. But we are also making sure that the words can be heard.”

High Jackman and Maureen Lipman in Trevor Nunn's production of Oklahoma at the National Theatre in 1998. Picture: SubmittedHigh Jackman and Maureen Lipman in Trevor Nunn's production of Oklahoma at the National Theatre in 1998. Picture: Submitted

The show has it’s dark side, particularly in the character of Jud Fry, but it is also funny and entertaining without too much emphasis on the acrimony between the cowboys and the farmers. It’s friendly rivalry. “Jud Fry’s a loner,” says Jenner, “and it is suggested in the script that he was responsible for killing a whole family in a fire.

He’s an outsider with a kind of animal quality. Our Jud is played by Adam Thurkettle, a big lad and a wonderful actor. Tess, playing Laurey, is quite slight and when you see them together you get the menace. But you have to have some sympathy with him. He’s not a cardboard villain, he has to have more to him than that.”

Jud has an amusing duet with Curly, played by Ben Child, entitled Poor Jud is Dead. Ben Young is Will Parker with Emily Smith as Ado Annie, Nic Metcalf as Ali Hakim, the amorous pedlar, and Sian Couture as Aunt Eller.

The Theatre Royal stage is limited in size but Christian Jenner is determined to get the best out of the dance and the music. Glen Conner is their choreographer. “He’s professionally trained and worked for ten years in the business so he’s got a massive amount of experience and he’s very good at teaching.

“We’ll have 16-piece orchestra in the pit under musical director Susan Simington because it’s such a wonderful score and needs a bit of power.” The great ballads include the opening Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, People Will Say We’re In Love, Out Of My Dreams and Surrey With a Fringe On Top. There are upbeat production numbers like Kansas City and comedy songs like All or Nothing and It’s a Scandal It’s an Outrage – to say nothing of the rip-roaring finale title ensemble.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammstein II creators of Oklahoma - the Great American Musical. Picture: SubmittedRichard Rodgers and Oscar Hammstein II creators of Oklahoma - the Great American Musical. Picture: Submitted

Jenner’s favourites: “I’ve always loved the Cowboys and the Farmers and Out of My Dreams, which my mother used to sing to me when I was little. We have a talented team and can’t wait to get on stage with this heartwarming story and fabulous score - the show that redefined the Broadway musical.”

• Oklahoma! Bury Theatre Royal, March 21–25, 7.30pm, 2.30 March 25, £22.50-£10, 01284 769505, www.theatreroyal.org

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