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.