I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Oklahoma! wasn’t supposed to be performed in its titular state. This is a shame, because I live here, and you’d be hard-pressed to escape this show. It’s everywhere- if there’s a year in which the musical isn’t being performed somewhere in the state, the whole state implodes and we all die. The title song is a part of life; at the production my wife and I attended for our anniversary a few weeks ago, they invited us to stand up and clap during that one song, and the whole auditorium complied whole-heartedly. In Oklahoma, Oklahoma! is a celebration of the state.
But Oklahoma! wasn’t written by Oklahomans. Rodgers and Hammerstein, in their first collaboration, adapted the show from a play called Green Grow the Lilacs, written by Claremore, Oklahoma native Lynn Riggs. Green Grow the Lilacs may have been a celebration of the territory spirit, but Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t write it for that, so it seems silly that Oklahoma has appropriated it for that. Well, it’s not silly, it makes sense- the name of the state is the name of the show, I get it.
But Oklahoma! is trivial as a celebration of a territory becoming a state. It’s tangential to the plot, something mentioned only in asides that has very little to do with what actually happens onstage. The central theme of the play revolves around the three main characters, Curley, Laurey, and Jud, and though the media at the time it first opened in 1943 perceived the show as cute and quaint, Oklahoma! is rather perceptive about gender roles in America.
At first glance, the nominal love triangle between the three of these characters probably seems a little cliched. Two men fighting over a wilting flower wasn’t exactly progressive, even for 1943. Remember, Katharine Hepburn was a star in the ’40s; women weren’t necessarily perceived as soft across the board. But, if you catch Oklahoma! in a good performance, the nuances become clear. Curley, the de facto star of the show, is a golden boy, and Laurey is his prize- only she doesn’t want to be his prize. In the end (SPOILER ALERT FOR 1943 MUSICAL), Curley gets the girl, but only because he’s willing to completely change his life from life as a cowboy to life as a farmer. Curley adjusts for her and not the other way around.
The linchpin for any successful performance of Oklahoma! is Jud. Jud has to be pure evil. In the performance we saw a few weeks ago, Jud was stupid; a brute, but stupid, slow. In other words, the decisions he makes over the course of the show- trying to take advantage of Laurey, threatening her when she refuses, attacking Curley when he gets the girl- can be explained away by using his stupidity. If you find a great performance of Oklahoma!, they understand that the show falls apart with an excusable Jud.
If Jud, instead of being slow and dumb, comes across as evil, if you catch the gleeful glint in his eye when he talks about violence with Curley or Ali Hakim, if you feel Jud’s darkness, then Oklahoma! works, because Curley is the man that understands women deserve respect as human beings and Jud is the man who sees them as objects for his pleasure. Oklahoma! is a convenient entertainment to use to celebrate the state, but that’s missing the point. The show that’s viewed as the first folk musical or as a hokey symbol of state pride is actually a prescient ode to gender equality.