Trouble in paradise: the dark anxiety at the heart of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Oklahoma! at The Young Vic in London - Marc Brenner
Oklahoma! at The Young Vic in London - Marc Brenner

“Wonderful is the nearest adjective,” swiftly decided The New York Times’s reviewer on seeing Oklahoma! for the first time on Broadway, rapturously itemising “a fresh and infectious gaiety, a charm of manner, beautiful acting, singing and dancing”.

Arguably, that opening night – March 31, 1943 – was the start of the “golden age of the Broadway musical”, a 20-year period coinciding with the mid-point of the “American century”. It was when the mighty writing partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was fully launched.

Successive hits followed – Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, as well as work by other well-known musical hands including Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady.

Oklahoma! – based on a 1931 play called Green Grow the Lilacs – began with its cowboy hero Curly extolling the “bright, golden haze on the meadow”, the start of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. What could be more fitting for the dawn of a gilded new era?

There had been others triumphs before it – Show Boat (1927) and Anything Goes (1934), for example. But, still, the bravura with which Oklahoma! combined story, song and dance in a display of “total theatre” gave the form new artistic credentials and commercial legs.

The original US production of Oklahoma! on Broadway - George Karger
The original US production of Oklahoma! on Broadway - George Karger

This and the other musicals that followed were big, spirited, tuneful, colourful shows that seem of a piece with a walking-tall chapter of American history – an age too when men were men, and dames were dames. Broadly speaking, it wasn’t until the 1960s, and the vast societal shifts therein, that musical theatre became edgier and darker.

Even so, the 80th anniversary of Oklahoma! invites us to reconsider some of these mainstream masterpieces and ask whether we have underestimated their alertness to the bubbling anxieties and complexities of their day.

American director Daniel Fish’s production, coming soon to London’s West End after an acclaimed premiere in the capital at the Young Vic last May, is the perfect spur for that re-evaluation. With only minor changes to the script and by applying a starker, harsher tone, he generates a mood that subverts the show’s usual unthreatening folksiness; the main love triangle acquires a more perturbed dynamic.

Where Curly is usually a wholesome soul, an obvious match for the hard-to-get Laurey, Arthur Darvill makes him meaner, more life-hardened; his farm-hand rival Jud, by contrast, is here no inarticulate lunk-head but – as played by Patrick Vaill – a picture of male fragility, a loner with teary eyes (an incel avant la lettre to some critics’ eyes). Love him or fear him, that shift makes even more problematic the concertedly upbeat ending, whereby Curly’s incidental slaying of Jud in the climactic fight gets swept under the judicial carpet by the town, with any dissenting voices lent on to ensure he gets off the hook.

Assessing Fish’s revival in 2019, the former New York Times critic Frank Rich marvelled at the way it looked “anew at what was there all along”, identifying “tragic fault lines that were built into the show as they had been built into America: the conflicts between the white-American majority and the Other – whether the Other is defined by race, immigrant origins, class, or sexuality”.

It has long been observed that though Oklahoma! is set in “Indian territory”, the Native American community is absent from its dramatis personae. Vaill is white, but Rich still regarded his presence as pointedly emblematic. “Jud is a wrenching fictional proxy for the lost folk victimised by brutality,” he argued, using a phrase lifted from Lynn Riggs, author of Green Grow the Lilacs, who was born in Claremore, where it’s set, and of Cherokee heritage.

What do cultural historians tell us about this period? A fair few are not persuaded that it was a time of accepted conformity, relative affluence and growing stability. Typical is the line: “Never before had progress seemed so fragile, history so harmful or irrelevant, science so lethal, aggregations of power so ominous, life so full of contingencies, human relationships so tenuous, the self so frail, man so flawed.” (William S Graebner, The Age of Doubt).

The idea that there was a better tomorrow, or even a tomorrow, was tested by the fallout from Pearl Harbor, the grim revelations about the Holocaust and the implications of Hiroshima. Rodgers was Jewish, Hammerstein of Jewish descent, and a preserved letter from a German relative to the latter in 1933 makes plain his awareness of anti-Semitism at the beginning of Hitler’s regime.

Striking a chord: hit writing duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II watching a rehearsal of Oklahoma in New York in 1943 - Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Striking a chord: hit writing duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II watching a rehearsal of Oklahoma in New York in 1943 - Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

While it would be a stretch to see Jud as a proxy for such persecution, or indeed the action prefiguring the later McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunt (albeit Hammerstein had to defend himself from accusations of disloyalty during the Red Scare), how can we not see some of their interest in this marginalised figure in ethnic terms, however sublimated? They would fight tooth and nail to ensure that You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught – arguing that racism is something you’re inculcated with not born with – stayed in South Pacific.

Once one looks at the tumultuous context of the times in which they were written, it is easy to detect reflections of doubt, dread and flux in many other musicals of the Golden Age, however escapist they may seem. Is The King and I a sumptuous tale of unlikely romance in old Siam? Perhaps it’s close to home in its study of incipient male confusion. Unable to beat his reluctant/errant wife Tuptim under the reproachful gaze of his British governess, Anna, the King goes into a swift decline – his sense of self imploded. The female challenge to male authority, however qualified by romance, is writ large in The Sound of Music – and in the lesser known Rodgers and Hammerstein flop Allegro (1947) the central subject is a male medic unravelling amid America’s rat-race.

Some songs from this era are explicit in their sadness. Dementing isolation lurks inside Jud’s solo Lonely Room (“I sit by myself/Like a cobweb on a shelf”). But joyous numbers often have a quality of willed defiance. At the end of The King and I, the King urges his own children to Whistle a Happy Tune, just as Anna advised her son, encountering a strange and alarming land for the first time, at the start.

No era of musical theatre has bequeathed the world more happy tunes than the Broadway Golden Age. A bright golden haze in the meadow, yes, but a mist of anxiety in the heart.

Oklahoma! runs at Wyndham’s Theatre, London from Feb 16;