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Critical Review on Oklahoma! - Jessie W


‘Based on Lynn Riggs’s folk-play Green Grow The Lilacs (1931)’ (Knapp, 2005, p.122), Oklahoma! (1943) emanated from the collaborative force of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; a new partnership formed after the breakdown of their respective original associations with Lorenz Hart, who suffered from alcoholism, and Jerome Kern. (Knapp, 2005, p.123) Oklahoma!, voted ‘best musical of the century’ by the New York Drama League (Miller, 2007, p.49), revolutionised musical theatre, ushering in ‘the age of the “integrated musical”’ (Knapp, 2005, p.123). Whereas before, where there was the more frivolous ‘Musical Comedy’, Oklahoma had a well-crafted plot, combating controversial issues such as attempted murder and rape. According to Miller (2007) ‘This is the stuff of heavy, intense, truthful drama’ (Miller, 2007, p.49). It explored relationships like a play, which was innovative for the time and used a strong female lead; that later became the norm in Oscar and Hammerstein II’s work. Though the story is simplistic, the characters are much more complex and three-dimensional (Broadway The American Musical: A History of Broadway, 2004 [DVD]): demonstrated resoundingly by the character Jud Fry, whom although the villain, gains audience sympathy. The love triangle also adds an extra dimension to the more conventional musicals’ plot, constructing a more intricate and sophisticated storyline. This is further heightened by the mirroring love triangle featuring Ado Annie, Will Parker and Ali Hakim. 'For the first time in a popular musical, neither the stars nor the songwriters were the stars of the show’ (Miller, 2007, p 48), leaving the focus almost entirely on the plot.

'While other shows opened with big chorus numbers and pretty girls' (Miller, 2007, p.50), the show opened with a lone character on stage. This sets the tone of the musical being from a much simpler time, with the idea of 'making do' and the enduring society, community remaining an overwhelming theme throughout. Knapp (2005) discusses this and how 'America saw itself in a microcosm' at the time of its release in WW2, perhaps accounting for the irrefutable success of the show (Knapp, 2005, p.124). Because the book had already been written, the score follows. As McMillin (2006) discusses 'the play’s dialogue has been turned to music without losing its cowboy specifity' (McMillin, 2006, p.36). The characters’ dialogue is vernacular in both the script and the song lyric. For example in Curly’s line 'Don't you wisht y'd go on ferever' (Oklahoma, 1943) the character remains truthful, integrating song with their natural speech pattern, for a more rounded characterisation. However, perhaps most revolutionary is the forcible female lead Laurey, and the exploration of her character through narrative dance.

The Dream Ballet sequence, though choreographed by Susan Stroman in this adaptation, is still heavily based on the original choreography by Agnes De Mille. De Mille ‘demanded that dance music be written to her dances, rather than the other way around’ (Miller, 2007, p.50) and so the music for Laurey’s dream ballet was composed specifically. This enhances the narrative language of the dance, the music fully reflecting the characters’ state of mind. The ballet 'permitted the exploration of deep feelings far more effectively than dialogue could ever do' (Riis and Sears, 2008, p.165), investigating the nature of love and lust. We really see the character Laurey grow from an ‘adolescent tomboy’ to a ‘young lady’, embracing ‘adulthood and sexuality’ which, as Sternfield discusses, is accented by her masculine clothing: it is only at the box social where the character wears a dress (Sternfield, 2008, p. 328). Within the sequence, originally choreographed by De Mille, there are a variety of dance forms explored, the predominant form being ballet that ‘is flavoured with turn-of-the-century costumes’ (Sears, 2008, p.153). Laurey’s affections for Curly are demonstrated through the playful and romantic pas de deux/waltz. The accompaniment to this is the ‘almost love song’ People will say we’re in Love. The white dress she wears is arguably symbolic of the innocence of their relationship or foreshadowing of the later marriage. However, there is a change in tone when Jud appears in the dream. Reflected through music, dance and costuming, the dance becomes more sexually explicit, featuring elements of burlesque, an erotic art form, again underscored through the costuming of the dancers who wear corsets.

While all kinds of dance had been incorporated in the shows of earlier eras, the profound connection of the ‘Dream Ballet’ to the plot of Oklahoma! revolutionised the use of dance in musical theatre. As her fellow choreographer Jerome Robbins said about the use of ballet to tell a story, ‘Agnes made it stick’ (Sears, 2008, p.153).


BOOKS Knapp, R. 2005. The American Musical and the formation of National Identity. Princeton University Press McMillen, S. 2006. The Musical as Drama. Princeton University Press Miller, S. 2009. Strike Up the Band. Heinemann Sears, A. 2008. The coming of the musical play: Rodgers and Hammerstein. in W.A. Everett,. and P.R. Laird eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sternfield, J. 2008. Revisiting classic musicals : revivals, films, television and recordings. in W.A. Everett,. and P.R. Laird eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DVD Broadway the American Musical: A History of Broadway, 2004, Granada Ventures [DVD] Oklahoma!, National Youth Theatre Version Production, 2003, Nunn, T. Stroman, S. [DVD]

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