Oklahoma Was Never Really O.K.

A new production exposes the darkness that’s always been at the heart of the musical — and the American experiment.

Photo-Illustration: Gluekit/AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Photo-Illustration: Gluekit/AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Photo-Illustration: Gluekit/AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

When those who want to make America great again wax nostalgic about the Great America they claim has vanished, what America are they picturing? If they grew up in the second half of the American Century and are white, that nostalgic cultural snapshot might be a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post portrait of rosy-cheeked middle-class familial bliss, or Sheriff Andy and little Opie sauntering to the fishing hole in mythical Mayberry. But no pop-culture staple may more immediately conjure the bygone Great America than Oklahoma!, the Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II musical that has been synonymous with sunny American nationalism for more than three-quarters of a century. The coruscating revival that debuts on Broadway this month, the fifth since the original production opened on March 31, 1943, is just one of the more than 300 new productions staged across the country in a typical year. Oklahoma! remains such an evergreen in the nation’s collective consciousness that even at its advanced age it can serve as both a springboard for parody in The Simpsons and a somber leitmotif in the premiere episode of Damon Lindelof’s HBO adaptation of the DC comic Watchmen, due later this year.

America sure does seem great in Oklahoma!, even though it’s set in a parcel of the country — turn-of-the-last-century Indian Territory — that hadn’t yet officially joined the Union. When the show’s cowboy hero, Curly, first enters, singing of the “bright, golden haze on the meadow” in “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” he brags that “ev’rythin’s goin’ my way,” as if good fortune were his birthright. No less swaggering is the title song, which conveys Oklahoma’s looming status as a “brand-new state” (the 46th, in 1907) with the rising tempo and decibels of an orgasm: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!” A theater company need never fear that the musical’s patriotic reaffirmation of America’s manifest destiny might rattle the subscribers. In Oklahoma!, the corn is always as high as an elephant’s eye and the skies are not cloudy all day.

At its birth, the show was to its America what Hamilton has been to ours: both an unexpected record-smashing box-office phenomenon and a reassuring portrait of our past that lifted up theatergoers at a time of great anxiety about the country’s future. Its Broadway opening took place less than 16 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when America was shipping its sons off to war and still digging out of the Great Depression. Like Hamilton, too, Oklahoma! was deemed artistically revolutionary for its time. A self-styled “musical drama” rather than a musical comedy, it dispensed with the usual leggy chorus line and leveraged its songs to advance character and plot. Not that there was much plot: The Oklahoma farm girl Laurey can’t decide between the two suitors vying to take her to a box social, Curly and her farm’s hired hand, Jud. What upped the dramatic ante was the creation of a Freudian “dream ballet” by the modern-dance choreographer Agnes de Mille to resolve Laurey’s quandary and the onstage killing of the defeated beau, Jud, when he shows up drunk on her and Curly’s wedding day.

Many generations later, Oklahoma!’s breakthroughs seem academic given the more daring shows that followed in its wake. The librettist and lyricist Hammerstein’s surrogate son, Stephen Sondheim, just turning 13 at the time of Oklahoma!’s opening, would update and expand upon his mentor’s innovations for a modern audience, as have Sondheim’s own musical-theater progeny, including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Over the years, Oklahoma! has settled into the contours of a comfortable antique quilt, albeit one enhanced by glorious songs. The idyllic homogeneous American heartland that it enshrines seems as fanciful as the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, U.S.A., and is no sooner coming back than the surrey with the fringe on top or, for that matter, the coal industry.

Or such was my lifelong impression of Oklahoma!’s vision of America prior to seeing the new revival in its pre-Broadway airing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last fall. The production shocked me, moved me, and puzzled me.

This staging culminates in an unexpected and indelible image: When Jud is killed in his climactic confrontation with Curly, his blood splatters on the bride and groom’s immaculate white wedding finery. For an audience watching from shallow bleachers on either side of a vast, brightly lit blond-wood stage evocative of the Oklahoma plains, it’s as if a bomb has gone off in a heretofore pristine paradise.

Unexpectedly, I found myself sympathizing with all three principal characters — most of all Jud, the nominal villain of the piece, who is usually played as a lunkish foil to the endearing Curly. That shift in emotional gravity created the puzzle: This Oklahoma! unfurled a different America than the one I’d always seen in it, starting with my childhood exposure to the lush, wide-screen Hollywood adaptation. The promise of the Great America we associate with the show is still fully present — the democratic America of communal harmony set forth in the saccharine Act Two song espousing how “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” But for once, equal time is given to the less egalitarian America, in which a community will vilify and cast off an outsider like Jud, a bitter underclass loner with an appetite for drink and pornography.

I left the theater wondering: Had these two contrasting Americas always resided within Oklahoma!, or was this spikier version vandalism by a director imposing his own revisionist spin on a quaint theatrical warhorse? I pulled out my old Modern Library edition of Rodgers and Hammerstein and found that no lines had been rewritten. A key prop is switched — the instrument of Jud’s death is a gun, not a knife — but that substitution is well in keeping with the spirit of the original text, where guns are conspicuous. When the new Oklahoma!’s director, Daniel Fish, was first putting up his rethought staging at Bard College in 2015, he told an interviewer he was trying not “to push the show” but “to really hear it.” And so he did. Which in turn prompts a cultural riddle: If the darker show he illuminates was present in Oklahoma! at its inception, why and how did it get there, and how did it evaporate in the intervening decades?

The production is not a slab of agitprop in the current fashion. There are no Trump masks or Trump impersonators or MAGA caps. (Fish first conceived his version in pre-Trump 2007.) There is no Trumpian villain — or villains at all, actually — only the earnest, flawed Americans of the original. It’s by looking anew at what was there all along that this Oklahoma! illuminates the 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. Though Trump has been maliciously adept at exacerbating and exploiting these divisions, they were there from the nation’s birth. Our history tells us that they won’t vanish once Trump is gone.

Oklahoma! was greeted as jingoistic entertainment in 1943, perhaps in part because a wartime audience didn’t want to see that the musical’s celebration of the platonic ideal of Great America was qualified by a brutal acknowledgment of how cruelly America can fall short. In the context of 2019, Fish’s restoration of the show is a timely refutation of the lie that America can be made great by turning back the clock to some immaculate America of the past. A great America has always been a work-in-progress. The Great America of nostalgic, reactionary fantasy, beatific and white and welcoming to all, never existed in the first place — not even, it turns out, in the bright, golden meadows of Oklahoma!

Settlers race across the border into Indian Territory to claim land as Oklahoma opens to white settlement in 1889. Photo: AP Photo

Which is not to say that Oklahoma!, its dark shadows notwithstanding, is innocent of whitewashing American history. The farmers and cowmen of the show may sometimes be at odds, but their collisions are mild compared with the cataclysmic conflict left offstage — the foundational story of the Indian Territory where the show takes place. As lore has it, Oklahoma in Choctaw means “red people.” Many of the territory’s Indian residents had been dumped there by Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which mandated the evacuation of Native Americans from their ancestral homes at bayonet-point. Some 4,000 of the 16,000 Cherokees who were forced to migrate to Oklahoma from Georgia along the notorious 1,200-mile-long Trail of Tears in 1838–39 died along the way. You’d never guess from Oklahoma! that its setting, outside the town of Claremore, is just 60 miles from Tahlequah, the capital of the transplanted and decimated Cherokee Nation. Nor would you know that white settlers like Curly were able to grab Indian territory because Congress abolished tribal land ownership in 1887, less than 20 years before we find him singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” There is an itinerant immigrant peddler, Ali Hakim, in Oklahoma!, but not a single Indian.

Yet paradoxically enough, the moral legacy of this history of criminal injustice, though stripped of its racial specifics, is embedded in the show through Jud. The character was the creation of the poet and playwright Lynn Riggs, whose folk drama Green Grow the Lilacs, a modest Broadway success of 1931, was Oklahoma!’s source. Chunks of the original play’s dialogue and stage directions survive in the at-once streamlined and expanded musical adaptation. (The expansion built minor figures in the original, Ado Annie and Will Parker, into conventional musical-comedy second bananas.) Hammerstein always acknowledged his debt to Lilacs. It was in fact the lure of remaking Riggs’s decade-old work into a musical — an idea pitched by the play’s Broadway producer, a partnership known as the Theatre Guild — that induced Hammerstein to sign on with Rodgers for the first collaboration of what would prove a legendary, nearly two-decade artistic partnership.

One of the prime movers at the Guild, Armina Marshall, was half-Cherokee and had grown up in Indian Territory. Riggs, born in 1899, had grown up there as well, in Claremore, and had a Cherokee mother. Riggs’s maternal ancestors were likely among the Trail of Tears survivors who ended up in Indian Territory, according to his biographer Phyllis Cole Braunlich. Her book is aptly titled Haunted by Home; Riggs was haunted by home while spending much of his adult life in exile. The author of 21 full-length plays — including the 1932 Cherokee Night, considered the first American Indian drama — he is remembered, if at all, as a footnote to Oklahoma! He deserves better. His DNA, rightly treated as precious cargo in Hammerstein’s loving adaptation, is the essential backstory to this American classic.

Riggs had a tough and peripatetic artistic life that could not be more American in its successes, disappointments, and sadnesses, and in its mongrel amalgam of cultural influences. Having lost his mother in infancy and been rejected by his father, a banker who disapproved of his literary bent, he fled to Chicago by signing on as a cowpuncher on a cattle train as soon as he was out of high school, then to New York, where, as Braunlich writes, “he was an extra in cowboy movies being produced in Astoria and the Bronx, sold books at Macy’s department store, and read proof for the Wall Street Journal” while bingeing on all the theater he could afford. Soon he would journey by freight train to Los Angeles, where he would again work as a movie extra (including in Rudolph Valentino’s first big film), try and fail to place a silent screenplay at Goldwyn Pictures, and in 1920 sell a journalistic account of a terrorist bombing, ignited by labor strife, that he witnessed while working as a proofreader at the Los Angeles Times. The $300 windfall from that article allowed him to return to Oklahoma to enroll at the university in Norman and start writing in earnest. But suffering, in Braunlich’s estimation, from “tuberculosis, depression, or a nervous breakdown — possibly all three,” he dropped out after being jilted by the girl he adored.

At his next stop, Santa Fe, Riggs added a second outsider’s identity to his Cherokee bloodline: He realized he was gay. He was closeted, of course, but his sexuality and lovers were not a secret to his circle in the enclaves that he bounced between, far from Oklahoma: Cape Cod, Hollywood, Paris, New York, and Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Riviera, where he worked on the play that would become Lilacs while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was an avid participant in the counterculture of his time. His far-flung patrons and friends ranged from the heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan, the doyenne of the Taos art colony in the 1920s, to the suffragist Ida Rauh Eastman, a co-founder with Eugene O’Neill and John Reed of the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. He made a second, more successful effort to break into screenwriting, earning credits on such 1930s studio fare as The Plainsman and The Garden of Allah. His famous pals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were so frequently seen on his arm at nightspots that The Hollywood Reporter speculated he and Davis were romantically “ablaze.”

By the time Oklahoma! was heading to Broadway, Riggs, then in his 40s and swept into the war effort, was making Army training films in Dayton, Ohio. His contact with the production was mainly by correspondence, though he did get sprung from duty to attend the Broadway premiere. Originally titled Away We Go!, the show had had a famously bumpy tryout in New Haven and Boston. The opening-night performance was not sold out, and stray servicemen were dragged in from Times Square to fill empty seats. By the next morning, the overwhelming critical response had set off pandemonium at the St. James Theatre’s box office on 44th Street. While Riggs would later complain about second-class treatment in the show’s avalanche of publicity, his Oklahoma! royalties supported him as his career trailed off over what would be the final decade of his life. His last credits included an unproduced television play and an unfinished novel. Hollywood belatedly started readying its Oklahoma! in 1953, and by then he was able to float a home on Shelter Island in addition to his apartment on Christopher Street. But he died a year before the movie’s 1955 premiere, after an agonizing and apparently untreated struggle with cancer, at age 54.

Riggs had rarely returned to Oklahoma, even when he was being honored there, but it remained his subject as a writer. “The main reason, of course,” he wrote Walter Campbell of the Texas literary journal Southwest Review as he was working on Lilacs, “is that I know more about the people I knew in childhood and youth than any others.” But he added: “It so happens that I knew mostly the dark ones, the unprivileged ones, the ones with the most desolate fields, the most dismal skies. And so it isn’t surprising that my plays concern themselves with poor farmers, forlorn wives, tortured youth, plow hands, peddlers, criminals, slaveys — with all the range of folk victimized by brutality, ignorance, superstition, and dread. And will it sound like an affectation (it most surely is not) if I say that I wanted to give voice and a dignified existence to people who found themselves, most pitiably, without a voice, when there was so much to be cried out against?” Given Riggs’s own life story, how could he have written about anyone else?

The character of Jud Fry is called Jeeter in Lilacs. His real-life prototype, according to the Oklahoma! scholar Tim Carter, was Jetar Davis (1889–1958), “a contemporary of Riggs’s who was also half-Cherokee and the town drunk.” When explaining his approach to Jud, Daniel Fish observed that he “couldn’t find anything in the text to make me think that he was a villain.” Yet in every production I’ve seen, Jud has come across as a heavy even when good actors (like Rod Steiger in the movie) play the part — a burly brute so overtly menacing that it’s impossible to understand why Laurey would ever consider choosing him over Curly. In an early song, “Pore Jud Is Daid,” he’s made to look like a clownish dolt as well: The mocking Curly goads him into fantasizing about committing suicide and attending his own funeral.

“Now don’t you say nuthin’ agin’ him,” says Laurey’s beloved Aunt Eller in Jud’s defense. “He’s the best hired hand I ever had.” But all anyone does is denigrate him. The Jud in Hammerstein’s script, often echoing Riggs’s dialogue word for word, is angry, with good reason. Oklahomans have been “lousy” in every town where he’s worked, he laments, “making out they was better. Treatin’ me like dirt.” When he accuses Laurey of looking down on him because he’s got “dirt on my hands, pigslop,” she responds: “Why, you’re nothin’ but a mangy dog and somebody orta shoot you.” Then she fires him without cause.

Hammerstein wrestled with the character’s inclusion in the show. In his introduction to a published collection of his lyrics in 1949, the year after Oklahoma!’s original Broadway run ended, he wrote that Jud “worried us” because he “was heavy fare for a musical play.” But he never considered eliminating him: “The drama he provided was the element that prevented this light lyric idyll from being so lyric and so idyllic that a modern theater audience might have been made sleepy, if not nauseous, by it.” Hammerstein wanted to make Jud “acceptable” rather than “a deep-dyed villain, a scenery chewer, an unmotivated purveyor of arbitrary evil.”

To make Jud human, Hammerstein gave him two songs: not only the well-known duet “Pore Jud” but also the subsequent, neglected “Lonely Room,” the only dramatic soliloquy in the entire score. “Lonely Room” is a rending lament about both Jud’s plebeian social status as a manual laborer and his depressed state of mind: “I set by myself / Like a cobweb, on a shelf / By myself in a lonely room.” In a show in which “all the sounds of the earth are like music,” his solo bristles with tragic dissonance — or would if it were heard. It was cut and then reinstated during the pre-Broadway tryout in 1943, omitted from the first original-cast album, and deleted from the movie. Between the downsizing of “Lonely Room” and the clichéd casting of Jud as a creep, the Jud that lives in Hammerstein’s (and Riggs’s) text has rarely prevailed.

Fish’s reawakening of the character pivots on an iconoclastic casting choice, though not the one you might expect. To be sure, his Oklahoma! company is diverse, racially and otherwise (Ali Stroker, a brilliant comic actress and singer who lost mobility in an early childhood car accident, performs Ado Annie in a wheelchair). But that’s now a given with Oklahoma! as with other classic American musicals; there have already been all-black Oklahoma!s and, last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a production with same-sex couples. Fish’s radical casting decision was his choice for Jud, Patrick Vaill (white and blond, as it happens). Vaill’s Jud, trim rather than thick and pale rather than swarthy, does not come off as an incipient rapist but as a tremulous, soft-spoken outcast desperate to grab his rightful due in life.

Vaill also answers the question of why Laurey (the vinegary Rebecca Naomi Jones in lieu of the usual soubrette) takes him seriously as a suitor in the first place: For once, the Jud is as sexy as the Curly (Damon Daunno, a scrappy departure from the usual square-jawed leading man). To draw us into the lonely chamber of Jud’s psyche, Fish and Vaill make the most of “Lonely Room,” but the director also recalibrates “Pore Jud Is Daid” by casting the theater into darkness, with the only illumination coming from giant projections of the two men’s faces in intense video close-up. Curly’s gallows humor comes off as sadistic, and Vaill’s troubled, moist-eyed Jud seems to pose a greater danger to himself than the neighbors who recoil from him as subhuman. By the time he and Curly vie for Laurey’s picnic basket at an auction later on, it’s hard not to root for him. When Jud bids “all I got in the world, all I saved for two years doin’ farm work,” you feel the psychic cost of every penny ($42.31 in total) of his thankless toil.

On Curly and Laurey’s subsequent wedding day, as Hammerstein’s script has it, Jud is killed by falling on his own knife when brawling with Curly. The text is silent on whether Jud’s death is accidental or Curly facilitates it. Theresa Helburn, the Theatre Guild producer who came up with the idea of making Riggs’s play into a musical in the first place, had little doubt Curly intended to kill Jud; she would later recall that investors spurned Oklahoma! by arguing that musicals “don’t have murders in the second act.” That the killing is willful, not accidental, also tracks with what follows Jud’s death: an open-and-shut “trial” that clears Curly on the grounds of self-defense so he can flee joyously with Laurey on their wedding night.

In Fish’s version, where there’s no knife for Jud to fall on, Curly plainly shoots him on the paper-thin provocation that Jud has taken a vaguely menacing step in his direction. The ensuing kangaroo court isn’t played for the usual laughs. The winking instruction kindly old Aunt Eller (Mary Testa) delivers to the men in charge — “Well, let’s not break the law. Let’s just bend it a little” — lands not as funny but sinister. By dialing down the tone and speed of the corrupted legal proceedings so that Hammerstein’s dialogue is delivered in a conspiratorial near-whisper, the director makes you feel that some of those exonerating Curly know damn well they are protecting one of their own and covering up the murder of a man their neighbors wanted to banish. “Feel funny about it,” says the solemn federal marshal (played by a black actor, Anthony Cason) as the others rush to clear Curly. “Feel funny.”

Jud’s lifeless body, in suit and tie befitting the wedding-day festivities, remains stretched out onstage where he fell. Once Curly is exonerated, Oklahoma! ends as it always does, with the happy, if bloodstained, newlyweds joining the crowd in another chorus of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” which is immediately followed by the finale, a reprise of the title song. But for once Jud’s death is more than a speed bump as the show races toward its rip-roaring final curtain. Vaill’s Jud rises to join the company and belts the song as vehemently as everyone else, though with a blistering, tearful rage that belies the jubilant lyric. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Lynn Riggs. You can’t help but hear a singular voice crying out, in protest and in grief, to be heard above the harmonious din of “You’re doing fine, Oklahoma! — Oklahoma! O.K.!”

Oklahoma O.K.? In 1943, when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical had its epochal opening night, just four years had passed since the publication of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, with its harrowing account of the impoverished “Okies” forced by the Dust Bowl to migrate on their own trail of hardship. Today, Oklahoma leads the nation in the mass incarceration of women and comes close in poverty level, poor public health, and a proclivity for anti-LGBT legislation that would still condemn Lynn Riggs to second-class citizenship 65 years after his death. If you had to pick a state where the gap is largest between the supposed Great America of reactionary Trumpian political fantasy and a harsher American reality, it would be hard to top Oklahoma.

The powerful image of the seething Jud rising from the dead on that bloodied stage demands that you consider all the others in America, whether in Oklahoma or beyond, who were ignored, forgotten, or simply erased from the feel-good official version of the national story that we like to tell ourselves. But if Jud is a wrenching fictional proxy for the lost “folk victimized by brutality” to whom Riggs wanted to give voice, his resurrection is still small reparations for the weight of the whole. In a country that has always been in denial about the original and compounding sins of its history, the buried casualties are not as easily exhumed and restored to their full humanity as Jud.

In the case of Oklahoma, the victimized populations include African-Americans as well as Native Americans. Freed slaves settled there in large numbers after the Civil War, establishing more than 50 all-black towns and settlements, but by the 1920s Jim Crow laws and a rising Ku Klux Klan were taking a harsh toll. I learned only by a chance conversation during a 2010 visit to Tulsa (30 miles from Claremore) that in 1921 the city’s Greenwood neighborhood, then known as the “Negro Wall Street” for its prosperity, had been the site of what may have been the most lethal race riot in American history. The match that sparked the flames was the usual — a black man was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. The official death toll was 36, but a 2001 study corrected it to between 100 and 300. All but one of the neighborhood’s blocks were destroyed, including nearly 1,300 homes and almost 200 businesses; some 8,000 residents were rendered homeless. Much as whites had looted the possessions of Indians evicted under the Indian Removal Act some 70 years earlier, so white Oklahomans helped themselves to the bounty of Greenwood’s affluent households. The culprits were let off as Curly was, no doubt under some spurious rationalization of “self-defense.”

That conflagration was still within recent memory at the time Oklahoma! arrived on Broadway in 1943. Or would have been had it not been purged from the record. And I mean literally purged. The dead were tossed into the Arkansas River and unmarked mass graves. News accounts were cut out of the Tulsa Tribune before they were assembled into bound reference volumes. The incident was not a part of the Oklahoma public schools’ curriculum until 2000, and only recently entered American-history textbooks. Any physical remnants of that 1921 inferno had long since been bulldozed by the time I passed through.

What also should have been within memory in 1943 was the so-called Reign of Terror, the 1920s serial murders targeting Oklahoma’s Osage Indians, many of them millionaire beneficiaries of the oil boom. The FBI’s official death toll was 24, but David Grann, who excavated this history from obscurity in his 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon, writes that many more homicides “had been systematically covered up.” His account concludes with an octogenarian descendant of a victim surveying the Oklahoma prairie at dusk from her front porch and quoting what God told Cain after he murdered Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”

This is the same golden land where, as the lyric has it, “the wavin’ wheat / Can sure smell sweet / When the wind comes right behind the rain.” Oklahoma!’s exhilarating title song was understandably embraced by wartime America as a patriotic anthem. But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s patriotism was not mindless jingoism, and their art was not propaganda. They never would have let Jud’s murder intrude on their show’s celebratory climax, with its triumphal sanctification of both marriage and statehood, had they not wanted us to see the blood of the Other America on Great America’s hands.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Frank Rich: Oklahoma Was Never Really O.K.