March 19, 2006

At the theater.

The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!"played at the Overture Center last night, and we were in the audience. I'd always heard about this musical. I remember being taught to sing a few of those songs back when I was in junior high school, long ago. But I had no idea what the story was, other than that it took place in Oklahoma. Based on the songs, I assumed it was a clean-cut love story. I was surprised to learn it was all about sexuality. There was one young woman who withheld her sexuality and another who gave it away freely. Each of these women had one man who loved her in a worthy way and another who loved her in a dark and slimy way. The sexually withholding woman's story was played for drama, and the sexually free woman's story was played for comedy. The characters' stories interweave through the many long scenes, until the predictable ending eventually arrives. The high point is a surrealistic ballet, the drug-induced dream of the sexually withholding woman, whose fears of rape are elaborately dramatized.

What did any of this have to do with Oklahoma? What was Oklahoma, the place, supposed to symbolize? It's the woman's body, territory that men want to move into and settle and plow. So in the end, when they are shout-singing "Oklahoma!" the real word is something they didn't put in song lyrics in 1943.

So where did the nice young virgin buy her drugs? From the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim. What do you do with an old play with a big, politically incorrect ethnic character? They played it broadly for laughs, another surprise.

Who was the most annoying person in the audience? I don't know. It was a big audience. But I'm going to nominate the old man who smuggled in a bag of potato chips and crunched on them quite audibly. You know how loud your own crunching sounds to you and how you think it's only this loud because of the way the sound waves are conducted though the bones of your skull and jaw? You're delusional if you go from there to thinking that it's inaudible to others. And chewing slowly is not a way to turn down the volume. In case you thought it was.

If you're going to eat potato chips in the theater, you might as well chew them normally. The offense is exactly the same. And, perhaps, if you've got a big ethnic stereotype in your play, you might as well play it broadly, the way it would have been played 60 years ago. Trying to make it more subtle and psychologically complex only calls more attention to it. But that's where the analogy ends. While you can't cut a major character out of a play, you could have left that bag of potato chips at home.


CB said...

It's refreshing to hear about a play or musical being actually performed, rather than interpreted--i.e. used as a vehicle to express the director's views on contemporary political & social issues. As to the setting (without knowing much about the work) I would guess that OK represents a place where social mores have a weak grasp, so individuals are free (in both a good and a bad way) to choose how to live.

CB said...

P.S., I'm assuming that since the ethnic stereotype was played straight, the rest of the musical was also played straight--I could be wrong about that.

Ann Althouse said...

CB: Actually, this production is based on the famous contemporary interpretation, by Trevor Nunn, which originally played in London in 1998. I assume it was sexed up.

Michael Farris said...

I've seen the movie but a long long time ago and I think they must have toned it down a little, and I don't remember any second guy vying for Ado Annie, just a (pardon the term) mob of guys she was putting out for. Your account certainly does give a new ... perspective on some of the songs/lyrics.

Surrey with a fringe on top ...
The corn is as high as an elephants eye,
and it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky ...
(Once you get in the right frame of mind, everything seems kind of dirty)

On the ethnic stereotype, another way to play it is as an obvious fake, just another white settler who's playing dress up.

Oklahomah represents Laurey's virginity just as Laurey represents Oklahoma's fertile virgin territory ready to be exploited. Ado Annie, meanwhile, represents the well exploited East Coast, she no longer has that frontier allure but certainly has a lot going for her in terms of convenience.

Troy said...

Not having seen the post-modern interp of Oklahoma and the ethnic stereotype.... What is un-PC about a Middle Easterner (or Arab or whatever the label is) dealing in hashish or opium or qat? Besides peyote from SW American Indians, pot from Mexico and the little (relatively) bit of cocaine floating around the southern U.S. post-Civil War where else would a Victorian-era Oklahoma virgin get her fix? Obviously the huge Arabic component of Boomer Sooner or from Doctor Zippy's "Elixir", or bad batch of white lightning.

bearbee said...

I suppose one can consider it from a Freudian angle but I prefer the romantic.....Oklahoma representing the US, fresh, young on the threshold of becoming the next world power with its people - energy and enthusiasm bursting at the seams - unbridled, spirited with wild, exuberant hope and ambition for statehood and prosperity looking toward the future while bringing along all the darkside of human flaws and frailties.

Never was clear why the peddler was Arab - perhaps representing the Ottoman Empire in decline?- but I am glad they refrained from pcing the character into what....... white, AS?

Ann Althouse said...

Michael: This production goes back to the original script (which make it really long). I haven't seen the movie, but I'm sure they cleaned it up a lot. In this production, Jud is a very important character -- he almost takes over. There's a long scene with Curley and Jud in the smokehouse talking about suicide and death.

Troy: Ali is a peddler of many things, not just drugs, but the politically incorrect part of it is that he's portrayed as a conniver, a lecher, and a coward. He's the sexual "other."

Ann Althouse said...

Bearbee: The peddler is Persian, not Arab. I think he represents the Old World, the opposite of Oklahoma. We just need him to get his hands off us and let us grow into our better values.

bearbee said...

You are correct - thanks for the correction.

re: Trevor Nunn, I saw his version of Oklahoma on PBS during one of the fundraisers.

BTW I recall the movie version contained the suicide scene as well as the Persian peddler character..

mango said...

For me, the hands-down best part of the Trevor Nunn London Cast was Hugh Jackman. Mmmm. One thing that was fairly revolutionary (and in retrospect obvious) about the London production was that they had the leads do their own dancing in the dream ballet. I'm strongly anti-dream ballet in general, but this makes it a bit more tolerable. Also see above assessment of Hugh Jackman.

My general opinion on Oklahoma is that it's way, WAY too long. That's not to doubt the handiwork of R&H, but simply that our attention-spans have gotten shorter, our butts have gotten bigger while the seats have remained a constant size, and given that we're far more exposed to dramatized stories, we get things quicker. Thus, if you try to get a 3+ hour new musical produced today, you need a REALLY good reason.

Lester Hunt said...


"What did any of this have to do with Oklahoma? What was Oklahoma, the place, supposed to symbolize?"

I've only seen the movie, and that years ago, but I remember putting it in the same category, thematically, as "The Music Man" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Set at om the twilight of the period of history that came to a violent end with WWI, it looks back nostalgically to the "innocence" of that lost era while at the same time acknowledging (an using) the greater freedom we subsequently gained to experiment with our lives and to raise questions about previously taboo subjects (like sex). These large cultural changes make for dramatic conflicts, and this particular one can inspire conflicting feelings in the audience.

But, like you say, it the movie version is no doubt quite different from the stage version.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

But can you tell me is everything up to date in Kansas City?

Can the farmer and the cowman be friends?

Was there really this much sexual intrigue? In all the versions I've seen [and there are several], I just saw fresh faced Americanism. New territory. New style of theater [the musical where the lyrics actually propel the story]. Judd was played perfectly by Rod Steiger in the movie. Brooding and lascivious.

Ado Annie was pursued by Will Parker and Ali Hakim. But even Ado Annie asked "Would you build me a house, all painted white, cute and clean and purty and bright?" to Will. She wasn't a tramp. Just a flirt.

What did you think about the trial in the final act? They were establishing a territory, a way of life that included justice. Curly and Laurie couldn't start their honeymoon until Curly was exonnerated.

Gertie Cummins got the peddler man in the end and he got a three day belly-ache. Isn't that just fun?

dick said...

Any of you heard of laudanum? That was a very common drug in the Victorian days, much like morphine. That was where most of the people got their drugs then.

The Persian would have been with relation to the Levantine traders who traveled through the west in the old days. They were the original gypsies who traveled and traded to make a living as they were not particularly welcome to settle down permanently any place.

The whole Jud bit was played out in the movie as well. The only problem was that our hero was played by Gordon McRae and he was not precisely a great actor so they made it a lighter presence. The entry of Jud into the end where he gts killed is not in the movie as I recall it.

I think you are trying to cast the Oklahoma in the freudian sense of today rather than the original reason to use Oklahoma. The timing of the play was shortly after they opened the Oklahoma Territory to settlement and the people were trying to show that they were ready to become a state with all that then encompasses for government and civilization. Note the contrast with Kansas City vs Oklahoma. I think Trevor Nunn's version will play but I don't think it is necessarily the only way to interpret the whole story.

Another possible interpretation is that Laurie and Curly are both rather young at dealing with the opposite sex and are not sure how to handle the power of it. They know that instinctively they belong together but neither is yet willing to give power to the other. The crudity of Jud I think is the crucial spark that forces the final confrontation and brings them together.

The character I like is Aunt Eller. She is kind of watching over them and trying to not force the issue. She wants them to make their own decisions but she is guiding the action all the way.

Bee said...

I believe Ado Annie's vying suitors were Will Parker and Ali. Will sings "All or Nothing" with Annie, a song in which he asks for a commitment, and she asserts her independence.

jinnmabe said...

Yes, but what did it all mean?

Do you guys think this stuff up during the show, or just afterwards? Does this type of analysis interfere with your enjoyment of the show?

Ann Althouse said...

Jinnmabe: Why do you assume I don't enjoy analysis?

Michael Farris said...

"do Annie's vying suitors were Will
Parker and Ali."

It's coming back now (I said it's been a long time since I saw it).

"Will sings "All or Nothing" with Annie, a song in which he asks for a commitment, and she asserts her independence."

Annie was always my favorite character in the movie. IIRC it's slightly ambiguous as to how far she's gone (I always thought it was clear she went all the way, but I'm sure others will disagree). But still, she's presented as unambiguously good, just a little misguided and ultimately ready and willing to settle down with a guy who probably doesn't have any illusions about her.
This was pretty out there when the play first came out (and when the movie was made). Where nice girls stayed .... intact (ahem) and girls who did the wild thing were doomed to a life of 'cocktail hostessing' (old hollywood code for prostitution), dissolution and probably early, tragic death.

As to different interpretations, all great art (I would put Oklahoma into that category) lends itself to many interpretations. Choosing or emphasizing one does not negate others. I think the sex stuff is definitely in the original (also in South Pacific) but portrayed in such a way that audiences of the time didn't have to confront it too directly (which would cause them to reject it most likely).

The director of a stage play has to interpret, decide which elements to emphasize and which to downplay.

And yes jinnmabe, interpreting plays, movies etc is part of the fun for me. Good movies/plays/books lend themselves to contemplation afterwards where a lot of the analytic fun comes in but also while it's going on.

bearbee said...

As it was orginally presented during the height of WWII, someone could do a juicy analysis against the politics of the day.......

Ruth Anne Adams said...

dick: I think Aunt Eller [the voice of reason through the whole story] dismissed "The Elixir of Egypt" as "fancy smellin' salts."

I never got laudenum out of it. Must be thinking about "Deadwood."

amba said...


reader_iam said...

I've seen Oklahoma many times on stage, and I've also seen the movie a number of times (though it's been a while, now). It's surprisingly subversive, and the theme of sex is pretty obvious on stage and in the film, I've always thought.

This comments thread is a kick, by the way.

I'm also laughing because I'm recalling that, during one of the rehearsals for one the Oklahoma! productions I saw (my parents played in the pit for musicals, often), my brother decided it was the perfect time to ask something along the lines of, "cain't say no to what?"

Innocent times, innocent times. I get the impression that kids much younger than he was then could probably cite chapter and verse.

A bag of potato chips???

There's nerve.

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Farris said...

"I think Aunt Eller [the voice of reason through the whole story] dismissed "The Elixir of Egypt" as "fancy smellin' salts."

But then, you'd have to accept the dream ballet as coming straight from Laurie's unconscious. That's somehow even more unsettling.

I think here, Aunt Eller (a precourser of Bloody Mary?) is just a little behind the times or in serious denial (denial, sweet denial, how would I get through the day without you?)

Michael Farris said...

Did the play include these lyrics? I'm pretty sure they were left out of the movie version.

"I hate to disserpoint a beau
When he is payin' a call.
For a while I act refined and cool,
A-settin' on my velveteen settee--
Then I think of that ol' golden rule...
And do fer him what he would do fer me!
I cain't resist a romeo in a sombrero and chaps--
Soon as I sit in their laps--
Sumpthin' inside of me snaps!
I cain't say no!"

Doesn't leave a lot to the modern imagination ...

Ann Althouse said...

Michael Farris: I remember the golden rule part, for sure.

Bee said...

I think you are trying to cast the Oklahoma in the freudian sense of today rather than the original reason to use Oklahoma. --dick

I respectfully disagree. I recently watched the original Gordon McRea movie, and the Trevor Nunn production. I also listen to the sound track of Oklahoma a lot, because it's one of my 4-year old daughter's favorites. I am always caught by surprise at how dark the themes of the muscial is. This darkness has always been there. It's not a light romp through the Oklahoma fields, as I initially thought.

I see Oklahoma as a framework for asserting equality and independence, and a request for respect, ie the farmer v. cowman, men v. women. Neither woman, Laurie or Ado Annie, settle cheerily into roles of flighty women looking for a man. Laurie and Curly compete in their courtship. Will wants to sow his wild oats, and come home to Annie and lock her up into matrimony. Annie says, no way, I want to sow my wild oats too.

I was wrong to characterize Ali as a suitor for Annie. In fact, hewas relentlessly pursued by Annie (another show of independence, a woman picking her own man).

dick said...

My point about the becoming a state is because of the conflict between the farmer and the cowman. The cowman doesn't want the fences that the farmer wants to protect his crops. The cowman wants the right to do what he wants anywhere he wants. The farmer is coming behind the cowman and is the next generation of settlers. The farmers will fence the land, build the churces and schools and families as opposed to the cowman and his free wheeling ways. They are in conflict in the creation of the state of Oklahoma. That was the point I was trying to get to. The older generation of pioneer women like Aunt Eller were on the cusp of both parts of the scene and the way they went with their influence was the way the state would go.

I think the two advantages that the Trevor Nunn interpretation has over the earlier one is that by moving the focus away from the prettiness of the voices and the songs and putting it on the action of the dances the darker focus comes through more strongly. Also by opening up the role of Jud from the earlier version the contrast with the cruder vs the lighter caste of the main roles really points up what the final resolution will be.

jeff said...

While Eddie Albert was a fine actor, casting him as Ali Hakim in the movie version was one of the few failures of the movie version.

...and Ann, I think you are reading way too much into it.