Entertainment

Daniel Fish on his dark new Oklahoma!: “We try to deal with violence, injustice and community”

There’s a glowing golden haze on the meadow…” Even if you don’t know Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals very well when you think about it Oklahoma! The first image that probably springs to mind is a smiling cowboy strutting onto a stage singing about what a beautiful morning it is. Or cheeky cowgirls in gingham dresses dancing around happily.

Daniel Fish’s bold staging of this 1943 classic attempts to erase such images from your mind. It arrives at the Young Vic, where Arthur Darvill will star Doctor Who Fame as Cowboy Curly, sleek, reclusive and ready to change your mind forever. While still fun and lively, it’s also the darkest and most challenging incarnation of the show you’ll ever see. Yet it hardly changes a word of the script, retaining every familiar song, including “I Cain’t Say No” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” presented in a new orchestration for a small bluegrass band.

Fish’s version of Oklahoma! began as a student production at Bard College, in upstate New York, in 2007 before morphing into a professional production and finally making its way to Broadway in 2018. A crudely hewn community center, with cannons mounted on the walls and a chili set on the long tables of the sets – had audiences telling people it was the best thing they had ever seen.

I saw it in New York at Circle in the Square and was blown away by its intensity, its bravery and by the way it presented a musical that always seemed a slightly cheesy celebration of the pioneering spirit than something far more alive and more questioning. Fish’s initial reaction, the quality that made him want to explore Oklahoma!was exactly the same.

“I knew the music as a kid and it had a place in me below the conscious level,” the director tells me. (Fish grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and was a regular at the theater as a kid.) “I thought I knew the play, but I didn’t know it at all. As I started working on it, I realized that there were issues there that were much more complicated and nuanced — ideas about justice, about violence, and about a community’s need to create an outsider to define itself.”

Oklahoma! is about the love triangle between farm girl Laurey and the two men who court her – glamorous cowboy Curly and farmhand Jud. Jud is usually portrayed as a sinister, scary thug. Fish, 54, with a long history of re-examining established lyrics, saw him instead as a gentle, cautious outsider. It changes the whole balance of the show.

“Because Jud turns out to be a three-dimensional human, every other character suddenly becomes more interesting,” says Patrick Vaill, who played him from the start. “It makes it a love triangle as opposed to someone molesting a woman. It feels like a psychosexual thriller in many ways; The focus is on these three people who are destined to be involved in a way that explodes their lives.”

Production shaped Vaill’s entire professional life. But in 15 years he never wanted to leave. “I will cross water to do this show. I love it. I believe. I love what Daniel has found in it and that it continues to unfold. It grows and is never finished. It was a wonderful companion, somehow odd and unique, and I’m so grateful for what this piece gives me.”

Arthur Darvill (Curly McLain) and Anoushka Lucas (Laurey Williams) in rehearsal

(Anne Tetzlaff)

For Darvill, it’s like stepping into another world when it comes to Curly. Although a skilled musician and composer – he actually wrote a musical called Already so longperformed at the Young Vic – he’s never been in a musical and he didn’t know it Oklahoma!. “We sang a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley in school choir,” he says. “With a very British accent. And I kind of had a preconceived idea of ​​what the show was. But my first experience was reading it, and I just found it so moving and so dark.”

The scene that struck him the most was when Curly visits Jud, his smitten rival, and suggests that he consider killing himself. “I thought Curly was supposed to be the good guy,” he says. “It really hit me, and knowing what this production is doing, I was so keen to be on board.” As he got to know the show better, he was even more impressed. “I really fell in love with these songs,” he says. “The complexity of the relationships is in the script. Rodgers and Hammerstein were very good at writing about people, and these songs go deep.”

Anoushka Lucas, the singer and composer who plays Laurey, grew up listening to music Oklahoma! as a child. “I was indoctrinated because my dad was a big fan,” she says. But this production’s polished, rigorous approach has allowed her to find new shades in what sometimes feels like a very traditional character. “What’s really fascinating is trying to shed all preconceptions about who Laurey is, shed the archetype of the good, virtuous, virginal woman and not twisting the words or making something of a joke, just trying to be that woman to be and what she says. It’s really easy, but at the same time very difficult.

The cast of the original 1943 Broadway production of ‘Oklahoma!’

(Granger/Shutterstock)

“She’s kind of paralyzed. She knows she has to make choices to start her life – and she truly understands that every choice she makes will have consequences and conclusions. She has a lot of drive, but I think it’s a trapped drive.

Vaill points out that the show’s impact has changed massively since the performances began. “It was so interesting to see how the world evolved or evolved. When we started [in 2007] Bush was President and America was at war in Iraq. That was very present. Then we did it in 2015, Obama was president, gay marriage was legalized and so Curly’s speech about “the country is changing, must change with it” was upbeat and beautiful.

“When we did it again, Trump was president and [the conservative justice] Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court, so the trial scene at the end had a very different vibe. Now it’s different again. That is the power of the piece.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Oklahoma!, their first musical together, in 1943. It was extraordinarily influential because it fully integrated song, plot and character. His dream ballet, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, in which Laurey expresses her feelings about being torn between Curly and Jud, was completely innovative. His all-American certainties, his belief in the spirit of the settlers, seemed reassuring in times of war, and he is now a staple of American college productions. The song “Oklahoma!” has become the state song of Oklahoma itself.

“I knew the music as a kid, and it had a place in me below the conscious level,” says Daniel Fish

(Alamy)

But its more complicated resonance was burned in from the start. It was based on a play Lilacs grow greenby Lynn Riggs, who was part Cherokee and well aware that the state of Oklahoma grew on land taken from Native Americans by gunmen.

It is, of course, now being performed at a time when Europe is once again at war, which – for its new British audience – puts it in a different light again. “I’m very excited to see the reaction,” says Darvill. “Daniel made it very clear that it’s not just about America, it’s about where it’s happening. We’re just trying to find out the truth about it at the moment.”

Fish underscores the point. “We’re not trying to literally explain what’s going on in the world,” he explains. “We try to deal with themes of violence, injustice and community in a way that feels as present as possible. To ask what happens if we do that in this particular moment in this particular city? That’s the production’s suggestion, so to speak. That’s why I go to the theatre. To see what will happen.”

James Davis (Will Parker), Marisha Wallace (Ado Annie) and Darvill rehearse

(Anne Tetzlaff)

His clear-eyed vision of the show is part of a new generation of classic musical productions full of well-loved songs that attempt to examine their assumptions. London will soon see Bartlett Sher’s reinterpretation of my beautiful lady, starring Amara Okereke as Eliza – and with a reconfigured ending that gives her more power and less romance. It follows Timothy Header’s production of carousel at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, fundamentally changing the show’s message.

For Darvill, seeing old musicals in a new way is important to keeping them alive. “Unless you make them museum pieces.” Luke agrees. “Reinterpretation is fascinating because it balances the quality of the material, and great material like Shakespeare or a Bob Dylan song or Oklahoma! can be done in 17,000 different ways. It’s just a testament to its quality, to the longevity of the songs. Its structure, harmonic, lyrical, melodic, is exceptional. I notice that the people backstage are all humming the score because it goes straight in. And that ability to write a song that goes straight into it is rare.”

In the end, Fish says, that’s the reason for the revival Oklahoma!. “Agnes de Mille was once asked why do you think the show has worked for so many years? And she said, ‘Because it’s good.’ The Rodgers and Hammerstein work, the music, the words, is just so good. And so well made. And so funny. The rigor with which the piece is put together keeps you coming back to it.”

‘Oklahoma!’ can be seen at the Young Vic Theater in London until June 25

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/oklahoma-young-vic-daniel-fish-b2070516.html Daniel Fish on his dark new Oklahoma!: “We try to deal with violence, injustice and community”

JOE HERNANDEZ

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