by Tess Tabak

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma is gloriously weird, an experimental triumph. It forever changed the landscape of Broadway when it debuted in 1943. Previously, songs tended to be interchangeable – removing them would have little impact on the story. Oklahoma set a new standard where songs were expected to advance the plot.

Last year, director Daniel Fish opened a conceptual, pared-down revival meant to reveal Oklahoma’s “darkness.” It’s received heaps of praise for revealing the show’s uncomfortable center. His pretentious, sexist, creepy production is up against Kiss Me Kate for Best Revival of a Musical this year. Oklahoma is almost certainly going to take home the Tony, and I hate it.

More than celebrating Oklahoma’s darkness, the show seems like an exercise in onanism for Fish, who basks in his “auter” vision. The actors sit around and pout, much like they do in the promo video below.

Two scenes are acted out completely in the dark, with minimalistic acting (the actors read the dialogue with little inflection). Most of the songs are slowed down and played at a sad key.

The second act opens with an experimental dance, Fish’s interpretation of Laurie’s dream ballet. In the original, it’s staged so as to be moderately clear what’s going on.

Fish, however, went in a purposely indecipherable direction. A woman leaps across the stage for several minutes like a horse. She is soon joined by a horde of women who charge across the stage like horses and then disappear – an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment seemingly designed to make theater goers say “Oh, I loved the dream horse sequence – oh, you didn’t get it? Obviously you’re not smart enough to…”

oklahoma broadway 2019 dream ballet

(As an aside, how crappy does it feel as a dancer to finally get a job but your only role is to be a horse for three minutes? I can only hope that one of these dancers will someday tell her story, “I Was a Horse in That Weird Production of Oklahoma.”)

I was talking to someone about how much I hated the revival, which I saw at St. Anne’s Warehouse before it transferred to Broadway. He said, condescendingly, “I could see someone not liking the changes if they were a fan of the original.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t like Oklahoma very much. Sure, some of the songs are great, and I appreciate its historical significance. But it’s sexist AF, clearly written by an all-male team. See, for example, the obligatory dumb slut song:

The revival has been lauded for highlighting the darkness in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. But Oklahoma never hid its darkness. At one point its hero, Curly, sings a cheerful song encouraging his rival Jud to kill himself:

The daisies in the dell

Will give out a different smell

Because old Jud is underneath the ground.”

Oklahoma was already bizarre and weird and sexist, but this production somehow made it worse. The play is directed in such a way as to make it seem that Laurie is really into Jud, who stalks and harasses her. She just can’t make up her mind!

We can kind of forgive the original 1943 production for this (can we?) because they “didn’t know any better.” But this is 2019 dammit. If Fish was already making such drastic changes, couldn’t he have made more explicit that Laurie does not like being stalked? No, because he obviously hates women.

Fish orchestrated most of the big upbeat numbers with sparing, downbeat acoustics, giving a sad “feel” to cheerful numbers like “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” But part of Oklahoma’s joy comes from the strange juxtaposition of the cheerful music with the awful things the characters are saying and doing to each other. I guess Fish thought that we couldn’t handle the nuance of that. In the original, the sunny reprise of Oklahoma already comes immediately after Curly has shot and killed Jud, but Fish felt the need to make this more obvious by having the couple sing it splattered in blood, with Laurie sobbing as she sings.

This revival comes at a time when Broadway is flooded with “feminist” reimaginings of famously sexist works from the 1940s and 1950s. See for example Lincoln Center’s 2018 production of My Fair Lady. It was praised as feminist for simply changing the last five minutes from Liza obediently handing Professor Higgins his slippers to walking out without saying a word.

Don’t we deserve better, as audiences, than seeing the same treaded territories? These changes feel like slapping a new coat of paint on top of a rotten house and saying “There, all better.” The wood is still festering, bound to collapse at any moment.

Maybe it’s time we put shows like Oklahoma out to pasture. There are already companies dedicated to reviving outdated musicals for a small handful of dedicated fans, like the York’s Musicals in Mufti and City Center’s Encores. I don’t have any problem with these theaters putting on shows like Oklahoma. In this context, we all understand that the works are meant to be viewed as historical pieces, that we’ve moved past them as society.

Is the revival of Kiss Me Kate starring Kelli Ohara any better? Not really , but at least it’s good fun, and has a woman credited with co-writing the book (which by 1940s standards means she wrote almost the entire thing). Kate’s revival also had some tweaks to make the show more feminist. They did a better job updating the show than Oklahoma, hiring Amanda Green to write additional content and take out some of the worst moments, like Kate being spanked.

But is that enough? Women still make up a tiny fraction of all theater writers and directors. Bella Spewack’s original draft of Kiss Me Kate had a stronger feminist message until the otherwise all-male creative team had their way with it. One wonders what she would think of Oklahoma and Kate battling each other for 2019 Best Revival. During this year’s Tony’s, ask yourself, WWBSD (What would Bella Spewack do)? Are we honoring women by putting up hasty coverups of sexist works, or would we do them better by saving room to develop new female-focused, female-written, and female-directed works?


Additional thoughts:

  • The woman in the dream ballet is wearing a t-shirt that literally says “Dream Baby Dream” in case you missed that it was a dream sequence
  • By replacing Agnes De Mille’s original dream ballet choreography, this production literally erases the only contribution a woman made to the original production of Oklahoma and replaces it with a man’s
  • I didn’t hate the entire production. Ali Stroker and Mary Testa are fantastic and shine despite horribly bad direction. And fine some of the bluesgrass orchestrations sound nice – even if the performances are reminiscent of a weird, drugged out party.
  • OK, fine, I do like the song “I Cain’t Say No” despite everything. Here’s Kristin Chenoweth singing it, isn’t she delightful?