Surviving in the States: Audience Rejection on the Road with Oklahoma!
I spent most of 2022 touring the United States, playing Jud Fry in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! This production transferred from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Broadway in February 2019 and was critically praised. The Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Revival and Best Supporting Actress for Ali Stroker’s portrayal of Ado Annie, which made history as she became the first actor using a wheelchair to win. When the tour was announced, I was excited to bring this story to audiences that wouldn’t be able to access it otherwise. National tours help provide access to commercial productions happening on New York stages by bringing those productions to audiences throughout the country, thereby becoming more inclusive by inviting more audiences into the conversation. The relationship between the story being told onstage and the audience is what I’m referring to when I say “conversation.” That relationship is why national tours are vital, because this conversation shouldn’t exclude those who either can’t afford to travel to New York regularly or whose schedules don’t permit it. Different demographics of the public deserve equal access to productions that generate conversations worth having
So how did our conversation go? Spoiler alert: our critically acclaimed production of Oklahoma! was poorly received by a large portion of audiences. You know how some movies bomb with critics but still make millions at the box office? We were the inverse of that. We had walkouts, of course, but also snickering, jeering, dumbfounded faces, searing reviews, refunds demanded, boos, audience members standing with both thumbs pointed down, vomiting in the balcony, sleeping, Facebook posts, Instagram messages, and emails.
Some of our destinations were more welcoming than others, and there were always receptive pockets in audiences at even our most unsuccessful stops, but the lingering feeling of rejection followed us throughout the tour. Stepping out onto stage and feeling animosity from thousands of people as you are about to embark on a nearly three-hour musical production is, well, daunting to say the least. But spoiler alert number two: we found a way to survive. So this essay is about surviving, and the conversation that takes place between audience and actors, and how it all coalesced inside my experience of this musical.
If at this point, you’re scratching your head wondering how exactly any production of a middle school spring musical staple like Oklahoma! is worthy of inspiring such charged reactions, let me try to explain.
When the original Broadway production opened in 1943, the musical’s celebration of small-town home-spun American spirit was a lightning rod of pleasure for a country grappling from the tolls of World War II. New York Times critic Lewis Nichols wrote at the time that Oklahoma! was “a truly delightful musical… full of fresh and infectious gayety… simple and warm.” The music, story, and dance were so intertwined that Lewis could not decide whether to call it “a musical play or a folk operetta,” but this seamless connection of plot and song proved to be the foundation of most of what we now call the American Musical. The show’s plot focuses on a small community in a territory soon to become a state. The cowboy, Curly, wants to ask Laurey to the Box Social, but Laurey’s farmhand, Jud, gets in the way. A comedic subplot involving a traveling salesman, another cowboy, and a girl who “cain’t say no” also plays out until both cowboys get the girl and the farmhand and salesman get their due. Dramatic main plot, comedic subplot, plenty of music and dance that includes an Agnes de Mille dream ballet—and in the end everyone celebrates with that titular song of land and identity being married as one: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.”
Director Daniel Fish cracked open this beloved musical and dug into its virtues with a vengeance. He flipped its perceived narrative into a young woman’s unfair and forced choice between a cocky man child and an emotionally underdeveloped outsider. Ado Annie’s inability to “say no” is no longer rooted in her scattered desires; instead it is a celebration of her large appetite. Curly’s cruelness and Jud’s loneliness frame an impossible and unfair decision for Laurey to make, so that the dream ballet is no longer a dance with her two suitors but a battle against the societal demands Laurey is trapped within. Through her gaze we see the men’s wooing as subtle cover for determined ownership, damaged emotional needs, and base sexual desire. Ultimately everyone in this small community must act in accordance to whatever helps them survive, no matter the cost.
Survival became a huge thematic element of our production. As that need to survive permeated throughout the songs and libretto, the underbelly of these characters’ desires and fears emerged front and center. Every night we were fighting for these characters’ need to survive their given circumstances, and in tandem we as a company were fighting to survive through our audience’s disapproval and animosity.
We were determined to present Oklahoma! in a way that would invite audiences to watch this story about community in early twentieth century America and find reflections of communities in the United States today.
What exactly caused this tension, this disapproval of the conversation we were trying to engage in? Was it our cast, featuring a diverse group of individuals whose bodies would not normally be allowed to inhabit these classic characters because of race and gender identity? Or because the band was a seven-piece bluegrass getup, replacing orchestral strings with banjo twangs? Was it our set being static and largely made of plywood, or the costumes being modern? The live video feeds that gave the audience a close-up, cinematic encounter with certain characters? Or the expressionistic lighting, with the stage giving way to large swaths of bold colors to underline characters’ green lust or red rage?
I don’t have an answer, and even if I took a poll I doubt a consensus would prevail, but most of my cast members and I overwhelmingly felt that these audience members did not want to engage in the conversation. Or rather many in our audience seemed ready for a different conversation than the one we had rehearsed, even though were performing the exact text and music they had anticipated. This distinction acknowledges that audiences are expecting two things when they engage with theatre. They want the words and, in this case, the music, but they also expect the performance—the story being written in the moment right in front of them—to tell a story. It’s not just about seeing a show; it’s about what production of that show you saw. How did the production enhance or change or detract from the show? This is another way of defining what I earlier referred to as “the conversation”: the thing that is happening in that moment between audience and artist. So audiences specifically did not approve of the choices we were making. they did not appreciate the nuance we were finding, and they did not desire to peek under the veneer of a beloved American musical and see what was underneath all that shine and polish.
We were determined to present Oklahoma! in a way that would invite audiences to watch this story about community in early twentieth century America and find reflections of communities in the United States today. In fact, the most surprising thing about this production might have been that, despite not changing any of the text of Oklahoma!, a libretto written in the 1940s, our show felt eerily relevant to the state of our country today. It isn’t difficult to equate a cowboy mentality of justice, a fierce sense of national identity, and the need to protect community from outsiders, to living in America in 2023.
I did not apologize for the choices we made on stage, and I did not make the conversation easier to digest for the audience.
At the beginning of this essay, I brought up the idea of theatre as a conversation between performers and audience and the importance of the model of the national tour in widening who can be a part of the conversation. But many of the people in this conversation were uninterested in participating and rejected the performance and performers fully. On an audience review site that aggregates from all the different cities we stopped in, we currently have 436 reviews and a 1.3 average star rating out of 5.
I welcome any of those 436 audience reviewers to respond, but I’ve never believed that the goal of theatre was harmony and contentment. Does it feel amazing to finish a show and have an entire audience stand and applaud and throw bouquets? I’ve never had the flower part, but yes that sounds great for my ego. But what is actually accomplished when an entire audience unilaterally agrees and responds in approving unison? Didn’t the large swaths of resistance in our audiences every night actually validate the fact something was truly transpiring in our theatre, that there was a real conversation happening with opposing views present? It was almost more akin to a town hall or school board meeting than a night at the theatre.
I decided to metabolize that resistance into fuel to keep going. I became more intent on remaining steadfast: I did not soften the edges of my performance, I did not apologize for the choices we made on stage, and I did not make the conversation easier to digest for the audience.
I had a teacher in school who told me that change is the hardest thing for a human to handle, that we will exhaust every other avenue possible, and only when we’ve fully failed at all other options will we allow change to take place. It is terrifying to feel the ground shift beneath one’s feet and to not know what will happen next, and here we were fully transforming audience’s understanding of a beloved musical they thought they already knew and offering a new lens through which to experience this story. I can sympathize with immediate resistance to any aspect of change, especially if our audience does not view the theatre as a place where change is allowed to occur.
But it is. I quickly learned that by performing this version of Oklahoma! across the country, I had a unique opportunity to the be the person to reveal to audiences that theatre is a place where change can and should occur. When I say “change” I’m not talking about the Beast changing into a Prince. I mean a paradigm-shifting new perspective on the world we inhabit. We had a particularly rough patch of shows in Greenville, South Carolina. It was our first experience of mass exodus of audience members at intermission and a general standoffish energy throughout the play. The next morning, a cast member and I were licking our wounds during breakfast at our hotel when a group of students who had taken a bus in from Georgia rushed our table. They had seen the production the previous night and were gobsmacked. One young person told me they didn’t know that theatre could accomplish what our show had. Another young woman told me that she wanted to play Jud after seeing the character in a new light.
There was always a group of brave individuals in every community we visited who were enraptured with change, who loved change, who desperately needed change.
Wherever we went, there were people outside the stage door who were hungry to discuss and dive into the conversation that our production was having. There was always a group of brave individuals in every community we visited who were enraptured with change, who loved change, who desperately needed change. This show gave them a small glimpse of what was possible when we stop gripping on to what we have always believed to be true and see what other options exist.
I have absolutely no power to decide which shows reach which audiences, but I consider myself lucky to have engaged in a worthwhile conversation with the touring house audiences across the United States. I hope the touring house producers also consider themselves lucky to have chosen a show that at times probably caused more chaos than harmony. I hope that theatre producers read this and see the value in engaging all audiences with stories whose conversations are finding ways both big and small to inspire change. What a privilege it was to face such resistance simply for finding new ways to tell old stories, because it was a reminder that we artists risk discomfort in order to make the world better.
Here's to more risk. To more conversations. To surviving discomfort in order to enact more change.
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Just chiming in briefly.
I'm very honored that so many of you have read this and felt compelled to respond. In writing this piece I knew that I was inviting criticism by opening up and revealing some interior truths of my experience, but luckily a life in the theater has helped my vulnerability stay afloat in rockier waters than these.
I’m much more struck by the care some of you have taken in engaging with this subject, and the ways in which you have expanded my understanding of how artists and audiences engage together through art in your writing.
Thank you for your nuanced approaches and for taking the time to share.
Thank you so much for continuing a dialogue about this production. I had the privilege of seeing it in NYC and again in Los Angeles. I'm so glad I had the benefit of time between those two viewings so I could return to the production and look more closely at the choices made. Did I love every one of them? I did not, but I had lively conversations with my fellow attendees after both viewings. As a 38 year theatre educator I often have conversations with young theatre makers about classic texts and earlier versions of productions. Too often my students don't want to see the production their grandparents loved. This Oklahoma was a great example of one team's vision of the script. I look forward to more theatre makers creating new works with old texts.
I am really glad that you and your fellow cast were employed and touring in work that was meaningful to you.
I knew from promotion about the Broadway production that the tour would not be my cup of tea, and this was reinforced by two sets of unsuspecting friends who saw the show in Minneapolis. One set wasn't familiar with the show and couldn't figure out what was happening. The other set loved "Oklahoma!" and said, "I am going to find out the name of the director and never see anything he's directed again." The one person I knew who saw the show in New York and liked it had no experience with the show; her experience would be very different from mine.
I avoided the show because, although it was successful in New York (of course, not on a grand scale; put a small show in a small theatre, and it doesn't have to succeed on the level of a "Hello, Dolly!" or "Guys and Dolls"), it seemed to me a case of the emperor has no clothes. Everyone was enamored by the "artsy" of it that they can't look and see that it's not as deep as they think it is. Usually New York doesn't fall for this, but it's not uncommon in Minneapolis. Of course, I didn't see the Broadway or tour production, so that is just guessing on my part.
I do take issue with the idea that the text was never changed, which is the main reason I avoided the show. Stage directions ARE text. Although stage directions are never meant to be followed step-by-step, they must be followed based upon intent. If Stanley Kowalski doesn't take three steps toward the kitchen table as he says a particular line, that doesn't affect the writer's intent. If he doesn't rape Blanche, that is NOT following the writer's intent. If in "Hello, Dolly!", Dolly takes a gun and points it at Cornelius's head to get him to go to the city, that changes the text and the characters (and the show). If, at the last moment of "Next to Normal," Diana crosses the stage, takes Dan's hand, and kisses him passionately, then hugs him close, that changes the text of the show. If Cassie doesn't appear in "One," it changes the text of a "A Chorus Line," even if all the dialogue and lyrics are the same, If Daniel Fish wanted to explore these themes, instead of shoehorning them into someone else's show, he should have created his own show. Classic plays and musicals are open to interpretation; that's why we see them again and again. But as pieces of classic literature, they should not be rewritten, either dialogue or critical stage directions.
Audiences and critics can be wrong. That is important to note. Audiences and critics were wrong when it came to "West Side Story." As Hal Prince said (and I paraphrase), "Sometimes the shows people walk out on are the ones that go on to be great." Audiences and critics were wrong when it came to the original "Chicago." But I can't think of any show in Broadway/touring history where literally half the audience walked out at intermission that would fit Hal Prince's quote.
I saw the production at St Anne’s Warehouse and thought it clever, cogent, and engaging. I didn’t see it on Broadway. I must say, the closeness, the compression, and the, yes, claustrophobia of the version I saw contributed greatly to its impact: as audience, we were at the party of the production. Not only were its intentions augmented or upended, but its aesthetics were revised. It wasn’t Americana written large as in the traditional staging; it was written lower case, and this humility carried its new intention. To be frank, if I had been expecting any of the uplift (read: the good and bad affect of a jingoistic old-school reading), the new version was frankly much bleaker. I was just swell with this interpretation. But can we blame people to fly with it who expect cheerleading from the piece? Especially, when the scale of the original conception was purposefully small? The transfer chose to plug the piece into a variety of houses, large, I would imagine, to supersized. No wonder this decidedly economic decision wreaked violence on the piece.
I’ve seen this happen over and over. Space is real, folks, and meaningful. Touring is rough because sometimes our work is at odds with its performance context. Not every work of art can survive the way it is displayed.
We all know people go to the theater for vastly different reasons. And all the commentators on this forum seem aware and curious enough to recognize the futility of offering opinions on a production they haven’t seen. Or suppose that a production at St. Ann’s is the same as the same theatrical material on Broadway, or on tour, or even from one night to the next.
I saw the Broadway production, and like that endlessly reworked aphorism, I do not remember every specific of the production that night, but I do remember how it made me feel. Unmoored, newly attentive, challenged, reflective, appreciative, entertained, ashamed, awed, amused, uncertain, critical. What more could one wish from a few hours of entertainment?
I loved the movie as a kid. I’ve performed in it twice. I’ve seen numerous productions of it. I spent years creating and performing edgy, non mainstream,occasionally truly avant-garde work. But never had I engaged in the critical analysis or conversation around Oklahoma prompted by what was experienced in that production. I was left flabbergasted at what was so evident in the text that I had been conditioned to not consider.
Theres a whole lot of finger pointing in these comments, some of it quite unbecoming. This essay opens a chance to consider…why go to the theater? Are there more than 1 valid reasons? How do we invite a conversation theatrically? What conditions are needed to engage productively in a conversation? (Not everyone wants things sprung on them) What responsibility does a production company owe in accurately promoting a production? What responsibilities are the audience’s? These conversations seem richer to me than recklesssly wielding one’s personal POV.
im rambling, and rereading this I’d probably benefit from editing it more tightly, but in the spirit of conversation, I’m leaving its flaws, in the hope that conversation will iron them out.
I admire your courage and fortitude. I admire your ability to channel the negativity into art, and to maintain faith in the few who found it meaningful. The only thing I question is that there wasn't a consensus among the people who happened to hate the show. I would be surprised if there weren't one or two common threads in the audience reviews, and I can even surmise what they might be. It's important to listen to the specifics of that part of the audience -- only for the sake of understanding each other more deeply, not for the sake of doing anything differently.
I saw this last year in Providence. I think the actor writing this broke character to tell the audience to shut up. The audience was over the top rude though and I did not blame him. Lots of elderly ladies loudly giving their opinions and walk outs of all ages.
Rude audience aside, you can't take a show that was successful in the round in a small theater and put it in a large proscenium and expect all of your conventions to still work! It was lazy, weird and honestly greedy. They could have booked more suitable venues... Or just not done the tour at all... OR DONE ANYTHING AT ALL to adapt the staging and lighting appropriately to the new venue format.
Regardless of anything anyone might say about audiences being unable to handle a controversial reworking of a show... That was NOT the problem here. The problem was they took a lovely award winning intimate show from an 800 seat theater in the round and tried to make it their cash cow on a proscenium tour of 3,000 + seat theaters and copy it exactly with no thought whatsoever to the fact that the show was going to be inherently different in this wildly different space.
The green light and the darkness that felt immersive and atmospheric in the round in an 800 seat venue (in pictures it looks like 8 rows max?) - felt like a mistake from the back of the large auditorium. The blocking felt flat. The egg scene seemed superfluous and silly until my friend explained it was a much bigger deal in the broadway revival and it was just really pared down. And I can completely understand why folks were put off by it. Especially when the stage hands really obviously came out from up center stage pulling all kinds of focus to clear things during the scenes. It felt like it was riddled with mistakes but it was just stuff that did not work there. The fact that I remember these details from seeing this once a year ago probably indicates what my feelings were... My friend was actually really really upset. She loved the broadway revival and really just wanted to experience it again.
I felt really bad for the actors though. They did a good job and it wasn't their fault - they were stuck holding the bag on the front lines.
I would have *loved* to have seen it in the round and gotten the full experience.
Yeah, it’s the audience’s fault they didn’t like your show.
The Tony award was political. Clearly.
It’s been my experience people can generally tell when a piece of dramatic literature has been contorted into something that no longer resembles the original source material. Yes, of course you were singing the same songs written in the 40’s. But the characters in your production of the play weren’t singing them for the same reasons. The intentions of the characters are what drives the show. Your production changed all that and audiences don’t like it. Neither did I. I found the show to be self-conscious and poorly sung. The casting in general was poorly done and in “deconstructing” the heart of the show, you were left with a show - surprise - with no heart.
Lastly- I found the tone of the article arrogant and insulting. You’ve really captured the feeling of your production of Oklahoma.
Instead of "not interested", maybe it's just hard to have a "conversation" when we're not all speaking the same "language"? Not every show speaks to every audience.
I saw this production in Washington, DC. Why oh Why did they over amplify the music in the ballet. It was ear splitting and an insult to the audience. Otherwise I liked the production.
The video sequences were distracting and unnecessary.
>>I saw this show in Greenville, South Carolina.<<
I'm an international publicist with an undergraduate degree in theatre and a master's degree in human development. I work with associates in New York, LA and any other major media market. I live in the South. In my office, I speak to city-dwellers via Zoom and phone. Off my porch, I speak to salt-of-the-earth farmers and neighbors who have only lived their whole lives in the Great Smoky Mountains. My friend and I drove to Greenville South Carolina to see this show while on tour. The drive is an hour from Asheville, North Carolina, which we do regularly to see shows when we don't fly to New York to see them on Broadway. When we left this specific show, we nervously giggled about how it pushed the boundaries of our Southern neighbors. Personally, I loved the adaptation and I also love this essay, which my friend just emailed me reminding me "this was the show ... remember?" To me, theatre is the mirror to life and I loved being pushed to watch a mirror that broke the mold. The cast and crew wanted to give the audience an experience and that was achieved. It was brave, bold and I'm clear ... it wasn't for everyone. But it was for those of us living and dreaming for larger public acceptance and tolerance ... well, for love. Finally let me say, the comments I've read here about this essay ... well, I still have hope. Say and act how you wish. It's just an inner reflection of you. Just as art is a reflection of us.
Finally got to see the show in Fort Worth, having not been able to in Dallas. I had read & heard enough about the show’s progress, from Bard & beyond, to prepare myself, with an open mind.
I’ve been fortunate to have seen a handful of productions of OKLAHOMA!, from almost laughably paltry to a glorious, meticulously crafted & performed version with the original ballet set by one of ‘Agnes’ girls’ (Gemze de Lappe, I believe) & an almost 40-piece orchestra, produced by N. Texas’ Lyric Stage. I’ve read a fair bit about OKLAHOMA!, its creation, creators, history, etc., & even got to meet & be charmed by Marc Platt, the original Dream Curly. I sort of love the show, even while becoming progressively aware of some of its social/political problems (beginning with “where are the Native Americans?,” & moving on from there).
So, I was open to this iteration, & found much to appreciate & enjoy. Certainly the band & all the cast members were excellent (including the Curly standby at the performance I saw), with Mr. Bannow particularly effective (not just saying that because this is his essay, & many critics also particularly praised his performance). Ultimately I had a sense of the production as being ‘in conversation’ with the history of productions, or almost as an essay on OKLAHOMA! The thought of someone coming in to see this production, having never seen one that hews closer to the original conception (hopefully a really excellently done one) was interesting, almost troubling. I couldn’t help wishing that every audience member could have had that background before encountering this version. I’m not proud of that wish, but it was a real feeling.
For me, probably the oddest moment of the show was at the end, with the audience & cast together, belting out the title song in a sort of joyous way. It felt strange, after what we’d just experienced, but it occurred to me that doing that after a more ‘traditional’ production holds the same kind of strangeness, if perhaps a bit softened.
What interests me particularly is what may develop from the seed of this vision of this show. How will it affect musical theater, going forward? Will it have much effect at all? I don’t know, but I’m very glad to have seen this.
Christopher thank you. Your experience reminds me of when I was a student at Syracuse University and worked as an usher for Syracuse Stage. During the production of "Tooth of Crime" directed by the incredible George Ferencz my job was to stand at the back and count all the people who left. And on average that was 35 a performance in a 500 seat house. This was in 1982.
However, behind me standing against the wall were the students -- who couldn't get enough of this production. We learned every move, every song, every hand gesture..... we had never seen ANYTHING like this and didn't know that theatre could be like this. My entire career is impacted from that production. And I'm sure, if I gathered my friends who stood behind me in the darkness - fixated toward that stage filled with sex, rock and roll, smoke and leather and a theatricality we didn't know was possible - they would say the same.
You articulated beautifully what is true and what we sometimes forget -- that it is our job to stay awake in our work. That in sharing the narratives of being alive, we remind our fellow human beings that they are also alive. Sometimes that's by making them throw down their program and walk out in disgust at what has been shaken within themselves as witnesses, and sometimes that is the next generation of citizens of our beautiful planet who need to see a door can be cracked opened for them to walk through as we transition forward together -- inevitably forward.
I deeply appreciate any production so dynamic and surprising that it causes such heated discussion. I happened to deeply appreciate the thoughtfulness and ambition of this production, even though colleagues that I respect did not. To walk out of the theatre and talk vigorously about what was seen and what it meant: what a joy.
But I worry when I read absolutist comments like "Oklahoma! should only entertain." If the only purpose of theatre is pure entertainment, then I believe our art form will die. I agree with those above who say we have easier and cheaper options for that.
Theatre at its best has always been about interrogation: of characters, of ideas, of the time period in which it's being presented, and even of the audience. Civic engagement, not agreement, is at the heart of theatre's over 3000-year history. I applaud any theatre for programming Fish and company's special production on their standard menu of touring fare. We don't always like the special. That's why it's special. These theatres had to know it would deeply challenge their audiences. And it did.
And forgive me: I forgot the reason for writing. Thank you, Christopher, for sharing your perspective, about the experience of touring and how the company persevered. Very compelling and insightful.
I totally believe we should re-examine those shows we’ve only see one way. The world has changed so much, and our classics should be re-thought. But, they have to be done well. Doing things just to shock an audience is not good theatre. The most important thing is telling a story, and if you aren’t telling it; if you are too busy trying to prove some idea or concept, then you’re going to lose your audience. Playing to a tiny crowd does not change the world. When you tell your story in a way that reaches all of us, then you can innact change. Otherwise, you’re an elitist and out of touch.
I saw the production in Detroit in Feb 2022. I was blown away by its power & beauty and the incredible performances from the cast. You all reached me - I was riding an OKLAHOMA cloud for several days after! Thank you for one of my top theatrical experiences!
I absolutely loved this production having seen it both at St. Ann’s and on Broadway. I’m also not a theatre “purist”. If things can’t be radically reinterpreted, especially in a living breathing art form like theatre, then the form is truly dead. The fact is, this musical will be produced again in its original form (or close to it) in the future. Frankly, I don’t need anymore escapist entertainment, so if it is, I’ll skip that production. I can get that on TV or the movies. Perhaps the backlash stems from the fact that people felt like it was a bait and switch. Like when you think you’ve walked out of the store with a chocolate chip cookie, but then biting into it, it’s actually oatmeal raisin.
Wow, Sean. You actually said "Your opinion doesn't matter." Shame on YOU. And you're the entitled one. Only your opinion matters apparently. I have not seen this production of OKLAHOMA but I would never be so arrogant whether I liked it or not. Take a moment and think about what you wrote.
THANK YOU for this. I happened to stop by the souvenir booth in Dallas, and asked them how many people they lost at intermission through the run. They giggled and told me about half - which was better than most. So, slightly proud of my hometown?
If you look back at the history of performing art, static art, any kind of art - the pieces that remain in the public discourse and discussion are NOT the ones that went the easy route - but the ones that challenged perspectives. West Side Story was despised when it was released. Beethoven Five was booed.
History is riddled with critics making the wrong call - and the art lived on. And frankly, the public rarely can tolerate change or any challenge to the familiar (see some of these comments!).
I will never forget this production - and I will never forget how YOUR performance, and the performances of your friends, challenged my perceptions, broadened my mind, and gave me a new appreciation for this incredibly problematic and subtle musical. (For those saying it’s a piece of entertainment, you apparently missed the messages of rape, murder, and an entire covering up the crime of a beloved member of the community. Yeah - this was not created as “entertainment.”)
Ignore the haters - - you did your job as an artist. You created a conversation. And I admire you and your cast for it.
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It’s really cute they wanna blame the audience for “not getting it”. But most of the comments made by very liberal educated subscribers at our theatre included “no one could sing” “the talent was subpar” “a waste of money on a gimmick with lazy direction”. This is not about audiences “not getting it”. It’s about bad LAZY theatre masquerading as avant-garde wrapped up in a performative gimmick.
I saw this production in Chicago with my wife and at intermission I said to her, “well, this isn’t grandma’s Oklahoma!.” After the show we were walking to our car, got into the elevator of the parking garage and the husband of the couple who got in with us looked at me and said, “that was weird… Right? Singing covered in blood… I didn’t think that was Oklahoma!”
I said back to him, “it was weird. It was different. It was a breath of life in an old story - I loved it.”
I believe this production was brilliant.
Oklahoma was written as escapism. Hammerstein wanted to continue with the idea of the book musical after he had the chance to be one of the creators of Show Boat. Finding a new collaborator in Rogers gave him the chance he had to adapt the book Green Grow the Lilacs into stage musical Oklahoma!, just as he had done with Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat.
The show was written to be escapism. Something light and patriotic with a love story that could get Americans to love America. This revival was brilliant in being able turn the table and say: “look at this same story from a more realistic lens, but use the same words and music as the 1943 version dripping with proud American ideals.
I think it’s important to be able to look at shows of the Golden Age and examine them to give them life in a new century. We could do the same thing with Carousel, On the Twentieth Century, Kiss Me Kate, and many more. Hammerstein would have been okay with it. Just look at him tackling the conversation of racism in 1927 with Show Boat.
America needs to be able to have conversations like this version of Oklahoma!. We are so ingrained that if we don’t like it, we publicly shame it into becoming what we want it to be. Where it made you feel uncomfortable enough to say something - sometimes that’s the point of live theatre. Especially because our escapism is now filled with our Jukebox Musicals, our Moulin Rouges, our Once Upon a One More Times, and &Juliets.
I loved this production. Not because I found everything effective, but because it sparked conversation in everyone around me and forced them to have an opinion on art.
Congratulations to this cast, crew, and creative team on making us talk about why we like or don’t like things. Congratulations on making people hate it. Congratulations on making people love it.
Congratulations all around.
Maybe instead of forcing a one-way conversation on your audiences, you could have done what Oklahoma was created to do—entertain.
We endured this abomination at St. Ann's in Brooklyn. Wife's family is multiple generations of performance arts; grandfather was a main cast replacement in original B'wy production of Oklahoma, wife is a seasoned theater professional, I have a long history in audio arts (provided scores and soundtracks for numerous choreographers) and am no stranger to "difficult" or "avant garde" forms of expression. We went to this show with one friend, another lifelong theater professional and Obie winner, while another friend who came with is a retired dancer from two leading NYC dance companies. Yet in spite of our well-seasoned views and truly open minds, we were dismayed and gobsmacked by the laughably clueless pretentions and misdirections of this ghastly adaptation. At Intermission, the four of us couldn't decide to stay or not as Act 1 was very underwhelming, but the live music was decent, and the free chili they were making available to the audience seemed gimmicky but homey, too, so we decided to stay for Act 2. Boy were we sorry we did, though it gave us a permanent benchmark of hilariously bad theater to carry with us forever after. The preposterously bad "ballet" sequence (poor Agnes Demille must be pirouetting in her grave) that was an unselfconscious parody of ridiculous "modern dance"; the idiotic cowboy boots falling from the ceiling; the down-tempo denouement IN THE DARK WITH FLASHLIGHTS AND WHISPERS.... so unbelievably tone-deaf and insulting to the source material! In short, just so SO B-A-D. Not just "bad" in the way of shaking your head and moving on, but memorably, historically, laughably bad; the kind of bad that becomes a shorthand punchline for family and friends forever after. In short, I'm heartened to know that while NYC theater goers and (clueless) critics can be bamboozled by such a hot steaming pompous pretentious pile of nonsense like this show, the vast country of provincials are not as stupid as one might think, if audiences roundly rejected this hideous adaptation of a dated antique that should've remained undisturbed and sleeping peacefully in its tomb. But Vainglorious Youth, bereft of any truly original theatrical ideas (are there any left?), in their desperate search for a carcass from which a fetid bone or two might be picked upon, came upon Oklahoma and thought, "here's grandpa's moldy old cowboy hat, let's pad out the sweatband so it will fit the tiny undernourished pin-head of a vapid vacuous youth, make a big batch of complimentary (booby-prize) chili, and play with our flashlights in the dark". Get a life Children! Once and for all, to say this show sucked was an understatement. Shame on you!
I don’t think I’ve ever read a more ignorant and overly dramatic recap of anything - obviously your “Wife’s family” did not hand down an ounce of theater knowledge or talent. People like you need to understand something. Your opinion doesn’t matter. The fact that you didn’t like something does not make it “suck,” or “ghastly,” or “nonsense.” It means you didn’t enjoy it. It means it wasn’t for you. But for someone like you to use such degrading and “gotcha” terms to try to tear down an artist, while sitting back and really doing nothing to add to the conversation, yet alone add to the world of art, is the pinnacle of entitled. I live in Texas. I grew up in Oklahoma. I’ve acted and played in many production of Oklahoma. And I loved this production. Every single minute. Every single nuance. But go ahead, sit back - make your judgments - while real artists actually do the work. No shame for these amazing artists. Every bit of shame on YOU.
Wow, thank you so much for recognizing that us 'provincials' aren't as "stupid as one might think." Shows that you are very "well seasoned" and truly "open minded" because you think that we are. The audiences in my city did not leave this production because they thought it was "memorably, historically, laughably bad" they left because it was different. They did not want different. Just like you, it seems. You sat here and wanted to act all pompous because you are connected to a long line of -illustrious- theatre professionals, and yet you seem to be someone who can not even for a second comprehend a different artistic interpretation than that which lives in your head. It also seems like you would be the type of person that would listen to "poor Jud is dead" and laugh, even though it is a song that should never have been played for laughs, but I guess that's the vainglorious youth in me, right? Maybe you are the one that needs to get a life. Sorry that you are the grandpa that has the old, moldy hat and no longer the pride of the artistic circles for which you seem to have placed all your self worth onto. Unfortunately, your old, moldy hat will certainly never be picked up and reexamined in the future. Have a blessed day!
Great essay and perspective. I saw the play 3 times in San Francisco and LA. It was amazing. You are all to be commended. Great job.