Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cross-post from FMT Blog: Interpreting Oklahoma

I posted the following over at the Foothill Music Theatre blog, since they did Oklahoma! a few summers back. But when done I thought it was kinda fun and that Moon fans might want to put in their 2 cents:

Ann Althouse is a well-known blogger, who happens to be a law professor and a rational conservative :) She is also on the Advisory Board for BlogHer Conference '06, over in my other life. That being said I've never met Ann, nor read her extensively until I saw that she too (let me bow my head in shame) writes about American Idol. Yes, it piqued my interest that Ann writes about law, politics and American Idol.

So being a new subscriber to Ann's blog rather than an occasional topical reader, I read this morning that she saw a production of R&H's Oklahoma! last night...and rolled out her expectations for the never-see show vs. the reality.
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.

Oklahoma! is my favorite R&H (I'm not generally a huge fan of R&H) specifically because it doesn't just hint at the dark side, like most of their other works, but delves in deeply. Yes, I know that Sound of Music has its threatening Nazis and South Pacific its underlying racism, and King and I its hints gender domination themes.

But in those shows the dark side is much less a part of the plot, or the show happily perpetuates some sterotypes even as they bemoan others.

South Pacific is an example. It comes closes to achieving something very critical that Oklahoma! does: it has the dark, uncomfortable stuff coming out of the mouths of "one of us." Nellie Forbush is the All-American girl, and she is the one who must battle her own not-so-latent racism to find true happiness. Excellent. Except this same piece has a character that doesn't just border on offensive, but runs right over into appalling, Bloody Mary. Speaking pidgin English and willing to essentially sell her teenage daughter to an American serviceman, doesn't the very presence of her take the heat off those racists in the show? Speaking of the daughter, she is the model of a silent submissive Asian woman. So, sorry, I know the show may have been revolutionary for its time, but it doesn't stand up too well.

In Oklahoma! the light and the dark are all represented by plain old Americans. Althouse is correct that the Persan peddler Ali Hakim is played for laughs, even as he drugs up the young Laurie, meanwhile Jud Frye is just a regular guy gone horribly wrong.

The game-playing between Curly and Laurie, the psychological warfare between Curly and Jud, the political conflicts between the farmers and the cowmen, the triumph of Ado Annie's wanton nature over Will Parker's hypocritical double standards for their couple-dom. These are the constant themes of Oklahoma!, and they actually seem as edgy today as they certainly must have then.

Oklahoma! edgy? I think so.

One last note: given Althouse's readership, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the first comment on her post is this one:
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.

a) I don't think Althouse really said enough abot the play's production to know whether the show was done with any particular overlay of interpretation.

But more importantly...

b) WTF? Did this person think we were talking about the judiciary? What do artists do but interpret when they perform? Nice way to insert conservative politics into a theatre review.

Anyway, I enjoyed Althouse's review. What do you think? Does Oklahoma, the state, represent female virginity?

Oddly enough, I've been reading Agnes de Mille's autobiographies while commuting on Caltrain for a month, and I can't recommend them highly enough. "Dance to the Piper," published in 1954, is a brilliant memoir about overnight success (with "Rodeo" and "Oklahoma") after about 15 years of total failure.

I've never been a big fan of "Oklahoma" partly because it is so dark and the sexual politics are painful. However, your bitchslap "WTF" to the "rational conservative" Ms. Althouse was priceless. I'd like to add that ALL productions, from the most outrageous to the most traditional, are interpretations. That's what live performance is.
I'd like to was a commenter on Ms. Althouse's post that made the comment about interpretation, NOT Ms. Althouse.

Thanks for the comment Mike...interesting to hear that what I like about Oklahoma is what turns you off to it.
One more opinion about sexuality themed plays... Im not a frequent theatre goer and I'm not a critic, but I'm quite fed up with this sexual theme that is contained in most plays known as hits. I believe this topic is played out, theatre artists should better use their talent for something else.
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