As Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! marks the 70th anniversary this year of its Broadway premiere, tonight Great Performances offers a very welcome encore presentation (in high definition for the first time) of Trevor Nunn’s critically acclaimed staging of the show, which first aired on PBS in 2003.
Hugh Jackman heads the mostly British cast as Curly, the role that propelled him to international stardom after Nunn’s production opened at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1998. Still largely unknown at the time outside his native Australia, Jackman quickly had female theatergoers swooning, with The London Daily Telegraph describing the actor as “6 feet, 3 inches of perfect tanned cowboy.”
Yet this well-received production, which transferred to Broadway in 2002, was no mere star vehicle. Oklahoma! was widely regarded as little more than a quaint and charming period piece when Nunn began pondering his revival. After all, the plot mostly revolves around the burning question of which boy a pretty young girl is going to let take her to a picnic.
Nunn, however, recognized conflict and complexity in the show’s homespun characters, especially when it came to Jud Fry, the lonely and inarticulate hired hand vying with Curly for the attentions of Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle), the show’s heroine. Over the years since Oklahoma! premiered, Jud had become a stock villain, someone who existed only to pose a threat to Curly and Laurey’s happiness. In Nunn’s revival, the character gained a new, almost tragic stature through the casting of American actor Shuler Hensley, whose shattering performance earned him an Olivier Award in London and a Tony Award in New York. It helped that Nunn also restored Jud’s often-cut solo, “Lonely Room,” near the end of Act One, a number that chillingly underscored Jud’s obsession with Laurey.
Probably the most controversial change that Nunn made, however, was his decision to hire five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman to reconceive Agnes DeMille’s legendary choreography, which previously had been considered a production element as integral to Oklahoma! as the music of Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. Stroman’s revisions included rethinking one of DeMille’s career masterpieces, the dream ballet for Laurey that climaxes Act One, in which DeMille had dancers doubling for the singers playing Laurey and Curly. In Jackman and Gabrielle, however, Stroman was blessed to have two singers who were accomplished dancers, a strength she exploited in a dance number that combines romantic lyricism and chilling violence.
As I recently rewatched this Oklahoma!, I was surprised to note that it clocks in at close to three hours, although it certainly doesn’t feel long. Anthony Ward, who also designed the costumes, came up with a spare but evocative set that emphasizes seemingly vast stretches of space, suggesting both a dreamscape and the sweeping plains of the Oklahoma territory at the start of the 20th century. It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that the score contains one Broadway standard after another, from Curly’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to the love duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” and Ado Annie’s comic complaint “I Cain’t Say No.”
Oklahoma! may have been the first true masterwork from the Broadway dream team that also would give us South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music, but as Nunn and company remind us, this 1943 musical still has a bracing freshness and power to surprise us after all these years.