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Jewish World Review April 8, 2002 / 27 Nisan, 5762

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Dark? "Oklahoma!" Critics Don't Know America | "Every night my honey lamb and I
sit alone and talk
and watch a hawk
makin' lazy circles in the sky"

-- "Oklahoma!"

NEW YORK "Honey lamb"? That is as corny as Kansas in August. Perhaps such lyrics please people in Manhattan, Kan., where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain. But surely the sophisticates in this Manhattan prefer to tap their patent leather dancing pumps to the urbane lyrics of Ira Gershwin.

Surely not. The show-business collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein long ago ended, but their melodies and lyrics linger on. In fact, rather more than just linger. They reverberate. Advance ticket sales topped $12 million by the time the revival of "Oklahoma!" opened two weeks ago -- in the Gershwin Theater, so there.

Whoever said that America's imperishable gifts to the world are the Constitution, baseball and jazz should have included a fourth: a distinctive kind of stage musical, the greatest of which is "Oklahoma!" It took that top ranking away from "Show Boat" (1927) 59 years ago and has kept it ever since. "Oklahoma!" was the first "integrated" musical, meaning the singing and dancing arose organically from the action, advancing rather than interrupting the narrative. Audiences were ready for this maturation of the musical.

When "Oklahoma!" first came to Broadway, the opening -- it was a sleety March night -- was not sold out. Soon tickets were scarce. However, servicemen in uniform were admitted to standing room without charge. It was 1943, a terrible year.

But the first words of the first song were -- are -- "There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow." The song, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'!," was an anthem of an American optimism that not even world war could dent. It is serendipitous that this revival, which played for four years in London, arrives with the nation again at war. And, as usual, the nation is fretting, as the Oklahoma territory fretted, about keeping the peace between disparate and sometimes rivalrous factions, such as "The Farmer and the Cowman" of the rousing number that opens the second act. But cultural events are always filtered through the mental lenses of the moment, so Ben Brantley of the New York Times writes that this revival of "Oklahoma!" is saturated with . . . well, he says:

It suggests "the West was won on the strength of sexual hormones." It finds "rushing erotic currents in the frontier spirit." It is "dewy with an adolescent lustiness" and a "darker sexual element." There is "a glistening sense of young people eagerly groping their way through an unfamiliar landscape"; and a world parallel to "the virgin land" of Oklahoma territory is the "shadowy realm of sexual initiation." And the choreography -- as in "The Farmer and the Cowman," which has "wild, procreative energy" -- vibrates "with the sense of sensual restlessness in search of an outlet."

Whoa. Perhaps Brantley should take a long walk or a cold shower, or the latter after the former. Yes, boys and girls in Oklahoma territory had a keen interest in girls and boys. Otherwise there would not have been so many subsequent Oklahomans. But "Oklahoma!" is about which boy -- the sunny cowboy Curly or the glowering hired hand Jud Fry -- should take the girl, Laurey, to the box social, for Pete's sake. How steamy can that be?

Some critics whose admiration for this revival of "Oklahoma!" is as high as an elephant's eye nevertheless emphasize its "dark" side. But this is not new. Curly has been fighting Jud Fry since March 31, 1943, when Fry first stabbed himself to death with his own knife while fighting with Curly. And for 59 years, before every final curtain, Curly has been quickly acquitted of manslaughter.

Is this "dark"? Ethan Mordden, a historian of Broadway musicals, notes that "Oklahoma!" is especially American in presenting "the unpleasant truth that evil will keep coming at you until you kill it. One piece of democracy is the harmonizing of discordant agendas. But another piece is the expunging of the wicked." The revival of "Oklahoma!" is timely, Mordden says, "because it defines Americans as a people, generous but plainspoken and tough on spoilers."

The first Broadway run of "Oklahoma!" lasted five years and nine months, a record not broken until "My Fair Lady" ran from 1956 to 1962. But in a sense "Oklahoma!" has never closed since 1943. In a normal year there are about 600 new North American productions of it. It is part of the permanent music of the American people, who know that the land they belong to is grand.

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