Story by Charlotte Dekle
I do not have the same affinity for “The Sound of Music” that many people do. Sure, it could be because I am a musical theater snob who views it as the most simplistic of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s catalogue, both score and story wise. But I cannot deny that many people love it, and that is their prerogative. My main problem is that I find that it tries to have its cake and eat it too; it tries to be both a firm denunciation of apathy to fascism but also a light and fun escapist (literally) story with doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles.
So instead of bloviating about my critiques of the Sound of Music, I want to discuss, in my opinion, a far better Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that brings many of the same virtues as “The Sound of Music,” great songs and memorable characters, while also being an authentic portrait of American culture: “Oklahoma!”
The synopsis goes as follows: in the Oklahoma territory during the turn-of-the-century land rush as the territory is on the verge of statehood, a boastful cowboy named Curly and a surly ranch hand named Jud are both in love with Laurey. But this synopsis is rather reductive as to what Oklahoma is truly about: the normalization of American violence.
I admit, when I first saw Oklahoma, I viewed it as a fluffy, escapist musical. The title song describes an almost utopian land “where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.” The opening song, sung by Curly, also has this air of perfection, singing that “everything’s going [his] way.” It paints a rather idyllic picture of the American west, before Oklahoma joins the union. My view on the musical based on these points is similar to how I had a rather uncritical view of America because it was painted as the “greatest country in the world.”
But of course Curly and I could have reverence for our country, it wasn’t innately against us. This is not the view of Jud and millions of Americans. In Oklahoma, Jud is ostracized for no real reason. There is vague menace and a hint of the capability of violence. But, in one song, Curly sings to Jud, trying to coax him into suicide (Pore Jud Is Daid) so that he could have Laurey all to himself. If anything, Curly is the one with violent capacity, but he’s the all-American hero.
This surface ideal of Oklahoma dissipated quickly when I saw the Daniel Fish production when it toured to the Ahmanson a few years ago. It was billed as “sexy Oklahoma” which I maintain is a misleading way to characterize it. Yes, this Oklahoma was sexy. But it was also bloody and real, without changing a single word of the score or book.
By the end of this production of “Oklahoma!,” Jud crashes Laurey and Curly’s wedding, and apropos of almost nothing, Curly shoots him point-blank. Blood splatters on Laurey’s white wedding dress. After Jud’s death, Curly is soon acquitted for the murder claiming self-defense because Jud was “pesterin’ Laurey” also, and more tellingly, “we ain’t gon’ lock the boy up on his wedding night.”
The Oklahoma that ignored Curly’s constant abuse of Jud is the same Oklahoma that had little regard for his death which is the same Oklahoma that acquitted his killer because he’s a ‘good man’ and is the same Oklahoma that congratulated itself for its fairness and equality.
The actors stand on the stage and reprise the title song, singing with conviction and aggression, “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand. We’re only saying ‘you’re doing fine Oklahoma. Oklahoma. OK.”