That low-down, polecat Daniel Fish won’t be showin’ his lyin’ face in the state of Oklahoma.
Fish is the guy who ruined “Oklahoma!” with his dirty, ugly, feminist, mean-spirited version of the Broadway musical classic we love. He took a candy-colored operetta of romance and turned it into a roadhouse brawl. He took pretty little Laurey out of puffed sleeves and put her in jeans like the tough rancher she was. All Curly wanted to do was ride around on his horse joking and singing and Fish made him a killer. The farmers and cowboys don’t want to get along with nobody.
He even ruint (that’s how we say it in Oklahoma) the music. He gave some country-western pickin’ flavor to the little band on stage. Ordinarily this is our favorite music, but we want the world to think we live in a lush orchestra with a big string section. In truth, it was a tussle to get the legislature to adopt “Oklahoma!” as the state song in 1953. How could we have a state song, one lawmaker argued, “written by two Jews in New York.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were somewhat shocking in writing about race and culture, especially in their musical “South Pacific” and Hammerstein’s “Show Boat.”
The sweetness of “Oklahoma!” was one reason for its Broadway success in 1943. Standing-room audiences were full of World War II military personnel being shipped out to fight overseas. Many thought this was what they were fighting for — a wholesome America full of pie suppers, handsome cowboys on horseback and sweet romance. Ah, the history that never was.
Fish’s revisionary production has been making headlines since its New York premiere in 2019, advertised as “not your grandmother’s Oklahoma!” His version is sexier, darker, grittier and more violent. This revival isn’t a love story, but a story of a rough people in a rough place, including gun violence.
Actually, I think that was my grandmother’s Oklahoma. I’ve studied some about Lynn Riggs (who grew up near Claremore), his play “Green Grow the Lilacs” (which was the origin of the musical), as well as territorial and early statehood history. It was a hard place and time to scratch out a living.
I’ve wanted to see the “Oklahoma!” revival since it premiered. It was to be the theatrical highlight of my year. But when the Tulsa production was postponed (no new performance date announced), I stomped and pouted like a child whose favorite toy has been taken away. The presenters said the postponement (tickets refunded and no new performance date predicted) was because of the show’s gun violence. (Sarcastic aside: I notice the big gun shows in Tulsa go on as scheduled.)
Some people don’t like the new “Oklahoma!”. Complaints always arise when a classic is revised, yet new versions are customary, especially with Shakespeare. Often, they are welcomed. James Ijames’s new adaptation on “Hamlet,” titled “Fat Ham,” is set at a Southern barbecue and focuses on Black masculinity and homosexuality. It won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and was heralded as the most progressive state in the union. Voters had a dream of a compassionate state that provided its citizens with public education, effective mental health care, progressive criminal
justice, workers valued over corporations and children protected by law from child labor in mines and factories. We got over that compassion fast. In four years, Oklahomans realized how much kindness costs in effort and money.
Today we never connect the two words progressive and Oklahoma. Instead, we have a teacher shortage, poorly ranked public education, inadequate mental health care, high incarceration of women, soaring child poverty, struggling health care, a groaning criminal justice system, growing food insecurity, homeless numbers inching up, unlivable minimum wage and housing shortages.
I came across a quote recently that I like: “The truth, however unpleasant, is the ultimate kindness.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” was a fairy tale. We have created a state with no storybook gloss. Maybe Daniel Fish has given us the “Oklahoma!” we deserve.
We went and lost our bright golden haze.