Rodgers and Hammerstein were an extremely productive team, and Oklahoma was their first collaboration. I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, when my dad used to play the 1955 version on our laserdisc player - oh, the technological wonder!) – on Sunday evenings. I’ve often wondered if the show would age well, but I’ve never seen a revival playing in the Bay Area. However, when I was poking around on Netflix I stumbled across a 1999 performance of the musical starring – wait for it - Hugh Jackman. That’s right – before he was Jean Valjean, before he was WOLVERINE, Hugh Jackman was Curly McLain, a lovestruck cowboy. Well, I have to see this.
In turn of the century Oklahoma, cowboy Curly McLain is in love with Laurey Williams. He asks her to attend an evening box social with him, but she refuses because he took so long to ask her. Instead, she goes with her farmhand Jud, a disturbed, strange man. Meanwhile, another cowboy named Will Parker has recently returned to town after winning $50 in Kansas City. He needed the money so that he could wed his true love, Ado Annie – but as men are wont to do, he spent it all on presents for Annie. Annie, however, is less devoted than her cowboy, for she’s been keeping time with a peddler named Ali Hakim while Will’s been gone. As the box social approaches, the web of relationships grows increasingly tangled as lovers break up, reunite, and confront their rivals.
When it first debuted in 1943, Oklahoma was one of the first musicals that had songs written to help move the show’s story forward. This seems so basic and normal now, but it was still something of a novelty back then. Many of the songs have become American classics – “Oklahoma” is the state’s official song, while “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” pops up frequently in pop culture. Both of those songs were spoofed in the South Park movie. The Simpsons has covered “The Farmer and the Cowman”. A parody version of the musical appeared in those Jerry Seinfeld-Superman commercials back in the day. Once you start looking, Oklahoma is everywhere.
Personally, the song I’ve always loved from this musical is “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. It’s bouncy and fun, with lyrics that pop and make you laugh. How can you not with lines like this?
Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in the surrey
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top
Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppen strutters
Nosy pokes will peek through their shutters and their eyes will pop!
Hands down, Hugh Jackman’s performance of this song is my all-time favorite. He throws himself into the role, so that his Curly is bursting with enthusiasm and energy as he convinces Laurey that his surrey the best rig for going to the dance. He wasn’t even halfway through the song before I was ready to leave my husband and jump right in that surrey with him. (Sorry Seanie, it was a really good sales pitch!) Don’t get me wrong, other singers do a wonderful job with this song too, but I just loved this version.
Curly is pretty fantastic; he’s a golden boy hero - of course the audience will fall in love with him. Equally powerful in his role was Shuler Hensley as Jud Fry. He made Jud menacing and scary in a quiet, desperate way. In his dirty and grimy shack, walls covered with pictures of naked women, he’s the quiet pervert, the secret serial killer. When he and Curly face off towards the end of Act I, it really seems like a meeting of good and evil. But then they sing “Pore Jud is Daid” and something happens. Impossibly, Jud becomes somewhat sympathetic, a transformation that continues when he sings “Lonely Room”. The song totally surprised me, because I had no memory of it - later, I found out it was cut from some versions of the show, including the movie - but it gives Jud the opportunity to become a fully realized character instead of the caricature of a mean bully.
The woman the two men are fighting over, played by Josefina Gabrielle, is a spunky and determined young woman. She’s also rather foolish, though, toying with Jud’s feelings when she admits that she is afraid of him. I found her songs were a bit too shrill, which was unfortunate. But even if she’s the female lead, Laurey is always destined to be overshadowed by Ado Annie, whose delightfully giddy and silly song “I Cain’t Say No” always makes me laugh. Annie is convinced that she loves two men, and they both love her – not exactly true. Will Parker may be true, but it’s clear that to the peddler Hakim she’s just one girl among many. By the end of the musical, the two lovebirds have sorted out their problems – sort of. Annie’s promised to be faithful to Will, at least as long as he’s faithful to her – but if he stays out on the town too late then she won’t be waiting around the house for him when he returns. If Curly and Laurey are the classic “love conquers all” couple, then Will and Annie are more realistic, I think. Certainly, I think they’re more entertaining.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Oklahoma. Some of the songs sound corny now. I can’t stand "The Farmer and the Cowman" or “People Will Say We’re In Love”. But the story’s fairly entertaining, and sometimes achieves a surprisingly depth with the characters, so it’s easy to see why the show remains one of the standards of American musicals seventy years after it debuted on Broadway.
...Now if someone can just find me a recording of Hugh Jackman's turn as Gaston in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, we'll be good!