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The new Oklahoma! is a sexy, shocking revival for our times

This isn’t like your high school production. It’s much darker.

Brigitte Lacomb, courtesy of DKC/O&M
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If you were paying attention to this year’s otherwise lackluster Tony Awards, you might have noticed the tremendous amount of love for the new revival of Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square. The production became an immediate sensation when it premiered off Broadway last fall. When it opened on Broadway, it promptly sold out and then extended its run into 2020, made director Daniel Fish and supporting actor Ali Stroker into overnight Broadway celebrities, and, most importantly, got us all talking about musical theater and sex.

Since its April premiere, I’ve heard the Oklahoma! revival lovingly referred to as “sexy Oklahoma!”, “the Oklahoma! that fucks,” “Fucklahoma!” and “Oklahomoerotic!” I’ve also been asked just as many times why the new production has gotten such a reputation — and why sex seems to matter so much to begin with.

So if you haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet, or even if you have and want a little more insight into what exactly you saw — for example, why entire scenes take place in utter darkness — you’ve come to the right place.

Oklahoma! is one of the most important musicals ever created

Marc Platt and Katherine Sergava dance together in ‘Oklahoma!’ at the St. James Theatre, New York, New York, 1943.
Marc Platt and Katherine Sergava dance together in Oklahoma! at the St. James Theatre, New York City, 1943.
Gjon Mili for The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

If you only know one thing about Oklahoma!, you probably know that it’s considered one of the most important entries in the American musical theater pantheon. That’s because before it, musicals didn’t really have cohesive plots and musical scores. Prior to Oklahoma!, the only other musicals that had really married the genre’s form to plot had also been heavily borrowing from other stage forms — like vaudeville for 1927’s Show Boat, or opera for 1935’s Porgy and Bess.

Then Oklahoma! came along in 1943, with a set of production elements unique to the story it was telling. It had an all-original musical score, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and the songs — numbers like “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and, of course, the famous title song, which ultimately became the state song of Oklahoma — actually helped further the storyline. It featured a long dream sequence that was told entirely through the medium of dance, in a now-legendary ballet choreographed by Agnes de Mille. Later stage musicals like 1949’s On The Town and movies like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) would make the dream ballet a common feature of the midcentury musical, but prior to Oklahoma!, this kind of thing just hadn’t been done before.

Oklahoma! was a huge hit, and suddenly musicals were more than just stage shows with loosely interchangeable songs and dances — now they were all integrating music and dance into their storylines. Oklahoma! marked the true beginning of the American musical as having a distinctive artistic identity, and its influence has never really gone away.

Oklahoma! is often viewed as a simplistic, rosy period piece — but it’s actually teeming with psychosexual drama

If you’ve never seen Oklahoma! before, you might be surprised that such a landmark musical has such a relatively simplistic plot. The conflict, superficially at least, revolves around the burning question: Who will take Laurey, the local beauty, to the country dance?

Will it be Curly, the upstanding cowboy, who makes up for in charm what he lacks in money and land? Or will it be Jud, the surly, ominous farmhand who may have a history of violence as well as an obsessive interest in Laurey herself?

This might sound like an obvious question. Who would want to be tied to the violent, controlling sociopath when they could have the rosy-cheeked, upstanding boy next door? But in fact, Oklahoma! complicates this choice in many ways. It’s immediately clear from the very beginning of Oklahoma! that Laurey and Curly are in love. But Laurey’s misgivings about being with him are nearly all practical, starting with the fact that, as a cowboy, Curly lacks most of the trappings — money, land, resources — that make him a suitable partner for her. At one point, he sells the only real advantage he has, his horse, in order to make a grand gesture for Laurey’s affection.

Meanwhile, Jud is known as a valuable farmhand with a strong work ethic and the ability to do what Curly initially can’t do — save money toward establishing himself as a landowner. These things should make him the more appropriate choice for Laurey as a partner, but his obsessive violence and his status as an outsider within the community make him not only unsuitable but also dangerous.

Traditionally, most readings of Oklahoma! take Jud’s violence, and thus his innate status as a villain, for granted, which makes the whole show more or less black-and-white. But recent productions, notably beginning with Trevor Nunn’s 1998 “pornographic” London staging, starring Hugh Jackman as Curly, have interpreted Oklahoma! as far darker and more ambiguous than traditional readings suggest. And when you explore the gaps in the musical’s book, it becomes very clear that Oklahoma! is in fact full of ambiguity and rife with sexual subtext.

Laurey, well-behaved, virginal but feisty, is a well of (sexually) untapped potential: She ostensibly dreams of escaping with Curly but also carefully nurses Jud at his bedside, spending fraught moments alone with him in his quarters. Both she and Curly can be read as being sexually drawn to Jud, and both she and Curly are arguably deeply moved and disturbed by their attraction.

This more sexually fraught triangle means that Jud becomes much more than merely a violent villain, and that much more is riding on Laurey’s choice than just romance.

Before we can talk about how the new show explores this theme, though, we have to talk about how this particular production downsizes and deconstructs everything the show is known for.

The new Oklahoma! is deliberately scaled-down and revamped

73rd Annual Tony Awards - Show
As Ado Annie, the enormous-voiced Ali Stroker became one of the first actors to perform on Broadway in a wheelchair, and the first to win a Tony for her work.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

The scale of the new Oklahoma! has been a controversial aspect for some theatergoers. Though many critics have raved over it, others have called the revival a “gimmick.” Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! is deliberately scaled down and strongly resembles the feeling of a high school auditorium assembly. The set, such as it is, mainly consists of the onstage band and a few folding tables and chairs, which the cast uses to serve chili and cornbread to audience members at intermission. (The cast appears to be making and cooking the chili onstage, but it’s actually catered for every performance.)

What you’re paying for with this Oklahoma! is not scale and traditional Broadway glamour, but the total opposite: a production that’s so stripped-down to its component parts that it earns your attention in new ways. For Oklahoma! this means three things: the score, the dancing, and the script.

The familiar quaint strains of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score have been re-orchestrated by veteran sound designer Daniel Kluger to fit a country-western instrumental palate, and the result is a sumptuous overlay of a flock of banjos, mandolins, and guitars above the traditional orchestral sound you recognize. It’s topped off with a healthy amount of twang from the cast, in particular from Damon Daunno, whose Curly is the falsetto-infatuated love child of Western movie staple Roy Rogers and sensitive Swedish songwriter Sondre Lerche, and Rebecca Naomi Jones’s wry Laurey.

The dancing likewise is scaled back, with most of the cast navigating around the folding tables and chairs like one would at any typical impromptu dance at any typical assembly room. The exception, of course, is the show’s legendary dream sequence. Featuring new choreography by John Heginbotham, the dream ballet is now a turbulent modern dance that opens the second act, performed by Gabrielle Hamilton as Laurey’s dream counterpart. The dream sequence is traditionally meant to be a visualization of the conflict in Laurey’s heart between Jud and Curly. In the new production, however, the dance is full of much stronger and more deep-rooted desires, as is Laurey herself.

That’s all thanks to the third element that the new production of Oklahoma has deconstructed: the musical’s script. The revival hasn’t rewritten Oklahoma!; instead, it’s simply allowed the dark, open-ended ambiguity between Laurey, Curly, and Jud to determine and direct its shape. The result is a production that’s intimate, as well as fraught with sexual tension, palpable desire, and a yearning beneath it all that points to a dream of a better America.

The new Oklahoma! uses its intimacy to ask questions about sexual and national identity

This video preview for the new Oklahoma! looks like a queer cinema arthouse promo. That’s because the production ... kind of is one.

The new production emphasizes the repressed three-way subtext between Laurey, Curly, and Jud in a number of ways. It frequently uses stark and dramatic lighting changes to signal the attraction between them all; Curly and Laurey are bathed in the bare green light of obsession whenever their eyes meet.

But when Curly and Laurey are, respectively, alone with Jud, the show plunges into total darkness, lowering its voices to intimate bedroom whispers, as if there are some secrets it can’t even admit to itself.

During one scene in which they’re alone together, Curly films Jud with a handheld camera, remaining close to him, speaking softly, like a lover. Jud’s wary, soulful, and ever-shifting expressions are displayed on the wall for the audience in a close-up that feels totally intrusive. Even as the show is telling us that Jud is obsessive, controlling, and dangerous, it’s showing us that we don’t know how much of Jud’s violence is real and how much is rumor; that Jud has already been framed as a social outsider; and that his fate has already, in some sense, been decided by the community’s tacit rejection of him.

Meanwhile, the show suggests Laurey’s attraction to Jud is partly due to his outsider status. As Laurey, Rebecca Naomi Jones often stays still, radiating full-body tension and uncertainty beneath her outwardly pleasant exterior. In the dream sequence, in which she envisions herself running to Curly, still torn between her attraction to him and to Jud, her dream counterpart expresses a huge range of emotions, from deep-seated anger to fear, lust to hope. At one point during the dream, an array of cowboy boots fall from the sky, as if to signify the pressure Laurey feels to make the choice that will most befit her community.

All this is crucial to understanding what makes Oklahoma! significant beyond just its technical historical importance. It uses its seemingly surface-level story about country dances and true love to tell a much deeper allegory of America itself. Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were always interested in questions of identity and how issues like class and racial identity impact human experience, use each of these characters — Laurey, Curly, Jud, and to some extent their comedy counterparts, Ado Annie, her suitor Will, and Ali Hakim (a peddler who becomes inadvertently mired in Ado’s romantic shenanigans) — as a stand-in for different potential future versions of America.

Oklahoma! cast dancing
This production of Oklahoma! also has a noticeably diverse cast, adding to its subversive presentation.

Oklahoma didn’t become a state until 1907, and a huge theme of the play is the idea that its excited citizens are collectively figuring out how to be “Americans.” Laurey, on the cusp of deciding between the two men, embodies that question: Who is she going to choose, and what will she subsequently choose to become?

Curly, as a cowboy with dreams of settling down and owning property someday, represents a potential future America that seamlessly integrates the dream of wide-open spaces with fenced-in land ownership. He’s masculine but sensitive, sexual but chaste, and able to conform to social expectations of what he should be, despite what may be his repressed desire for homoerotic bonds and violent self-expression.

Jud, on the other hand, is open about his desires, his anger, his nonconformity, his inability to fit in. But he’s full of bitter, barely suppressed rage; the violence teeming beneath his surface echoes the violence of America’s bloody, genocidal conquest of the West. On top of becoming a sexual temptation that threatens to lure both Laurey and Curly away from their new roles as upstanding citizens of their shiny new state, he becomes a figure whose humanity can’t be validated or legitimized, because it is broken, tied to the violent past of America itself. Jud represents a darker, tortured future for the country.

Thus, whether true or not, Jud’s sexual autonomy must be framed as misogyny, and the sexual liberation he represents must be framed as a threat to women like Laurey. His ostracism has to reinforce both Laurey’s and Curly’s virtue; America can’t build a harmonious version of itself on a foundation of sexually liberated desire and a memory of its violent past. It has to repress one and forget the other — and so Jud, ultimately, becomes a sacrifice, while Laurey and Curly become husband and wife, and Curly ascends to the role of farmer.

The show’s ebullient closing number, “Oklahoma,” is a direct celebration of Curly and Laurey’s marriage and the larger meaning it carries for Oklahoma’s statehood. Curly and Laurey’s union represents everything Oklahoma is striving to be — sexually pure, upwardly mobile, conformist — and moreover, everything that America itself will become.

And if there’s blood on their hands by the time the lights dim, not to worry: Two such beautiful upstanding patriots have nothing to worry about — and that, too, is America.

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