Wednesday 16 August 2017

What a remarkable score: Oklahoma!

Robert Fairchild (centre) as Will Parker in Oklahoma! with the John Wilson Orchestra. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC
Robert Fairchild (centre) as Will Parker in Oklahoma! with the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC Proms.
(Photo Mark Allan/BBC)
Until I caught the BBC television broadcast of Rogers and Hamerstein's Oklahoma! from the BBC Proms on Sunday (13 August 2017, a televising of the original Prom from Friday 11 August) I had never seen Oklahoma! from beginning to end. John Wilson's performance with the John Wilson Orchestra and Nathaniel Hackmann, Scarlett Strallen, Robert Fairchild, Lizzy Connolly, Marcus Brigstocke, Belinda Lang, and David Seadon-Young gave us every note of the original 1943 Broadway performance.

It made me realise what a remarkable score it is. Whilst later Rogers and Hamerstein musicals dealt with awkward issues such as domestic violence, and racism, Oklahoma! is more about the every day lives of country folk, and part of the musical's revolutionary nature was the way the two developed Oklahoma! as a play with music where the music arises out of the drama and helps to push it along. Musicals like Jerome Kern's Showboat took remarkable steps towards creating a grown-up, serious medium, but the way Rogers and Hamerstein eschewed the traditional Broadway musical construction means that Oklahoma! has every right to be considered one of the first really modern musicals. So we get only one reprise in the second act, the title tune only occurs in the penultimate number and the long first act concludes with a 15 minute dream ballet. The show opens not with a big opening number, but with Curly (Nathaniel Hackmann) singing off stage

But what makes the show stand out is not this, it is the fact that you can hum virtually every one of the songs. I might never have seen the show all the way through, but most of the major numbers are embedded in our collective consciousness. However it takes serious musicological productions like this to make us re-assess works, forgetting the corney excerpts that stick in the mind.

Mind you, 1943 was clearly an interesting year when it came to the Broadway musical. Granted, the year saw the premiere of the revue Bright Lights of 1944 and of Cole Porter's Something for the Boys (Ethel Merman's fifth Cole Porter musical), but there was also What's Up? (Lerner and Loewe's first collaboration, choreographed and directed by George Balanchine), Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus and Oscar Hamerstein's Carmen Jones (with an all black cast, none of whom had been on the Broadway stage before).
There is a great deal more to Oklahoma! than 'Little House on the Prairie', it is not entirely comfortable, there is the anti-hero of Jud Fry who becomes obsessed with the heroine Laurie, and the final scene with the impromptu trial (of Curly for Jud's murder, the result is of course not guilty) remains a disturbing example of local mob justice.

At the Royal Albert Hall, thanks to David Seadon-Young's remarkably creepy performance as Jud Fry, the performance had real depth. Nathanial Hackmann displayed a fine, wholesome baritone and great charm as Curly, whilst Scarlett Strallen made Laurie seem less cute and more rounded than some. Belinda Lang (Aunt Eller), Lizzy Connolly (Ado Annie) and Robert Fairchild (Will Parker) all brought a nice admixture of humour to their roles, without ever losing the essential thread of naturalness in the production. The role of the 'Persian' peddler was originally considered for Groucho Marx and Marcus Brigstocke was the only non-musical theatre performer but showed himself highly adept at the form.

Whilst all the cast were engaging and on superb form, a really big round of applause must go to the chorus. Inevitably rather small, given the size of the stage area, they had to sing and dance (in a big Broadway show there would be a mixture of singers and dancers), and this they did with gusto including the remarkable dream sequence ballet. It would be good to see this in Agnes de Mille's original choreography (does that still exist?).

In its original form Oklahoma! is a long show, but hearing it this was made you realise quite how much we miss and you wish a way could be found to release the performance on disc. Central to the whole project was John Wilson and his orchestra, not just giving us idiomatically engaging performances but enabling us to hear the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations. In an age when having a decent size string section in a musical is uneconomic, Russell Bennett's role in the creation of the Broadway sound of the 1940s can sometimes be overlooked. (We don't often get the chance to hear his orchestrations in live shows, but we caught Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 2015 and this had the Orchestra Pasdeloup in the pit and used Robert Russell Bennett's orchestration, see my review.)

Oklahoma! is currently on BBC iPlayer so if you missed it on BBC 4 you can catch up, for another 25 days.

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