Beneath every story is another one. That’s the story of history, too. We typically hear one version, flattened out and filtered by those in power. But what happens when different voices are amplified, different notes strummed? We hear a whole new song.
That’s precisely why the most recent production of Oklahoma! to hit Broadway sounds so different than the bawdy, exuberant productions of yore. This stripped-down Oklahoma! trades in booming chorus lines for the ache of an electric guitar and yearning cries of “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” Instead of kicking up her bouncy skirt and laughing through “Many a New Day” with friends, Laurey, the show’s central character, angrily bakes a cornbread and spits out lyrics about moving on to a new love with vitriol. Sped-up and sung in a minor key, it really is a different song.
It’s called Oklahoma! — but it’s not the Oklahoma! you know from high school auditoriums or the famous 1955 movie adaptation. From Roger and Hammerstein’s 1943 source material, director Daniel Fish has excavated mounds of buried emotion. What results is a deeply intimate tale of a woman’s sexual and personal formation.
Typically, Laurey is played as a happy-go-lucky farm-girl who spends her days churning butter and teasing her decision between two men, Curly McClain (Damon Daunno) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill). Laurey here is silently raging (and lusting, and dreaming). She’s a girl coming-of-age with nowhere to grow.
“Daniel really wanted to make it Laurey’s story. He really wanted to focus on what Laurey wants, what Laurey’s feeling, what Laurey’s questioning,” Rebecca Naomi Jones, the Brooklyn-based actress who plays the production’s particularly tortured Laurey, told Refinery29.
Consequently, Oklahoma! clears the stage for Laurey’s interior life. Laurey stays on stage for nearly the entire show, silently observing characters, taking in what they say about her. She notices that Jud’s slow, off-kilter lurk could translate into danger before anyone else, and tries to diffuse Curly’s streak of aggression. It’s as if Laurey senses the musical’s tumultuous conclusion long before the intermission — and the concern stays on her face throughout. “There’s a lot of story that has to do with Laurey in which she’s not speaking,” Jones said.
Eventually, Laurey’s conflicted interior life becomes the focus of the entire production in a riveting sequence of modern dance, completely at odds with the style of the rest of the show. The incredible Gabrielle Hamilton, who dances the dream ballet, prances barefoot around the stage in a sparkly shirt that says, “Dream Baby Dream,” her body spasming with rawness. She acts as Laurey never could. “The dream ballet is about the building sexuality within her. How scary that is, and how and exciting,” Jones said.
Watch this simmering, sexy Oklahoma!, and you’ll wonder how you missed it before. “Now I can’t imagine it any other way. I look at the text and say, ‘Yeah, it’s all there,’” Jones said.
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It’s all there – but it’s never been amplified. After all, most stories are told from the perspective of the victors, the powerful. Or, more succinctly put, from the perspective of men. The current Oklahoma! is one of many recent projects to filter a popular story through the lens of its women. And how different that story becomes. In Circe by Madeleine Miller, the events of The Odyssey are mere background to Circe’s fabulous awakening as a witch. Or, the recent spate of Starz dramas based on Philippa Gregory’s royal-centric novels turn British queens into the real power players.
Essentially, these re-imaginings pull the women of the past a step into the future. Call it wishful thinking. But it’s a chance to remember the women of the past, real and imagined, were just as complicated and yearning as we are today.
“The women of Oklahoma! have always been strong,” Jones said. “In the original, Aunt Eller tells it like it is, Ado Annie is happily very sexual, and Laurey is searching for independence. But what Daniel has allowed us to do is show that women are making choices to be that way,” she continued.
Mary Testa, who plays Aunt Eller, agrees. “In this particular production, all the women make their own decisions. We create our own path,” Testa told Refinery29.
Fittingly, Oklahoma! centers around a woman’s choice: Will Laurey choose Curly McLain or Jud Fry to take to the dance? Told one way, this scenario could unfold like a fun, frontier-set romantic comedy — and it has, for years. In Fish’s version, though, the stakes of a young woman’s quotidien crossroads are elevated to epic-level heights.
Because in Fish’s version, Laurey’s not really game to play along with her role as the winsome farm girl in a romance. She’s silently infuriated by the very notion of a binary choice: One man or another, one future or another. What about all the other futures? What about all the places beyond Aunt Eller’s house, places she hasn’t seen?
When Will Parker (James Davis) returns from Kansas City, Laurey — still onstage — listens to his stories of seven-foot-tall buildings and bustling crowds. It dawns on her: The world’s bigger than Aunt Eller’s house, and Curly’s "surrey with a fringe on top" isn’t going in that direction.
Anyway, Laurey’s “big choice” isn’t even much of a choice at all. From their first moment of eye contact on, it’s thrillingly obvious that Laurey wants Curly, the sexy cowboy, over Judd, the slightly creepy loner who lives in Aunt Eller’s back-house. She wants Curly so badly that when they sing together, the stage is bathed in a green light, signaling the entry into a sexually electric side universe with a population of two.
Despite her attraction, Laurey approaches Curly like a spiny creature, scared of being touched. Because Laurey knows that by choosing Curly, she’s closing off other doors. She wants Curly, and she wants more.
Here’s the truth that Fish’s Oklahoma! lays bare so effectively: Laurey’s big independent decision is hardly triumphant or empowering. Even if she forges a path, she’s operating within a hopelessly closed system. There’s the farm, there’s the fields. There are the cowboys and the ranchers. That’s it. Outsiders are cast aside — either married into the community like the Ali Hackem, or killed, like Jud. The threat of “difference” is eliminated. From every angle, Laurey is hemmed in by the claustrophobia of the community and by the very landscape that Curly praised in the musical’s opening number.
Like all of Shakespeares’ comedies, Oklahoma! concludes in a wedding — but this is no comedy, and this is no happy ending. Over in the corner is Jud’s dead body. In the air, the wafting guilt of a miscarriage of justice: Did Jud actually deserve to die for crashing a wedding? In Fish’s adaptation, Curly shoots Jud dead, as opposed to killing him in a knife-fight in the original. The crime’s evidence was hastily brushed aside but its reverberations are lodged in collective memory. The newlyweds’ first day of marriage is marked by murder.
If Laurey is going to get her happy ending, Jones thinks she’ll have to find it herself. It’ll come by seizing the elusive, unstated third choice. Not Jud or Curly, but herself.
“Part of me thinks maybe Laurey and Curly make a go of it together for a couple of years and then Laurey goes off to travel,” Joes said. “Ultimately they’ve seen a lot at the end of our play that they can't unsee. I’d like to think that that lights a figure under Laurey’s ass and she gets to exploring the rest of the world.”