Have you heard? Oklahoma!, the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical most commonly associated with cringe-worthy renditions of "I Cain't Say No" in high school auditoriums and chorus lines of women in prairie costumes, is cool again.
Actually, that's not quite right. Though this extremely unique revival of Oklahoma! is the darling of the Tonys and media Twitter, "cool" isn't the right adjective to describe the show. It's sexy.
Take the scenes of flirtation between Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curly (Damon Daunno), the musical's central couple. Throughout the show, the Circle in the Square theater remains starkly lit; audience members across the stage as visible as the actors. But when Laurey and Curly make eye contact, the theater is plunged into an eerie green light. The pair enters into a world of their own — and takes us along for the ride. Through the lighting alone, Oklahoma! recreates the paradoxical state of being in a crowded room, and still being alone with your lover.
Jones didn't know about the light changes until rehearsal. The first time the sudden change happened, she was shocked by the effect the green light had on her emotional state.
"It was so jarring," Jones told Refinery29. "There’s something about the green that took me to a place of nostalgia for a moment that I remembered with an ex from years ago. We were riding on his bicycle in the middle of the night on our first date. There's something about that green light that just takes you somewhere. It transports you."
For reasons of green light and passionate glances, Oklahoma! has been christened "Sexy Oklahoma!" (or a similar variation) on Twitter.
I forget which member of the theater community started calling it “Sexy Oklahoma” but since then I haven’t heard a single theater person refer to it as anything but— Ben Ferber (@BenFerber) June 4, 2019
Wisely, the musical's PR department is leaning into Sexy Oklahoma!'s reputation, releasing a music video depicting one of the show's most charged Curly-Laurey interactions. In the song "People Will Say We're In Love," Laurey finally succumbs to her attraction to the cowboy with a quivering voice. They come centimeters from kissing. It's two minutes and 28 seconds of sexual tension more convincing than most movies (come at me!).
However, this radical re-reading of Oklahoma! has garnered praise for reasons other than sheer sexiness. Oklahoma! is up for multiple Tony Awards this Sunday, including Best Musical Revival, Best Direction of a Musical, and three performance nominations. For better or for worse, the Tonys don't make nomination decisions on thirst alone.
Oklahoma! also provocatively strums the dissonant chords present in the text — and in modern America, especially for women. Who is allowed within a community? What happens when a person refuses to conform? Is choosing between two men to take to a dance really going to be Laurey's most significant life choice? Essentially, how far can a young woman like Laurey dream?
Audiences may leave the theater drooling, but sexual desire is only one aspect of the complicated web of longing in Laurey's heart.
"Laurey's longing is so deep. In most productions it's just seen as a sexual longing, which is a typical way of reducing a woman's experience in popular culture. Laurey's longing is sexual but so many other things. It's a longing for depth and meaning and a life that really matters," Abigail Disney, one of the show's producers, told Refinery29 at an event for Oklahoma! hosted at her apartment.
Earlier that afternoon, three generations of women who played Laurey — Shirley Jones of the 1955 movie adaptation, Christine Andreas of the 1979 Broadway production, and Rebecca Naomi Jones of the 2019 production — convened to discuss how the role impacted them personally.
"Shirley and I always said, we were Laurey," Andreas said during the event's panel, which also featured Fish and Bill Bost, who is spearheading Skydance Television's Oklahoma! TV adaptation. "I was going through a lot at the time of the show. Seeing Laurey's complexity enables you to see that it's part of being human, to have that sense of longing for something bigger than you'd ever imagined."
Disney, like the three Laureys, finds a strong parallel between Laurey's conundrum and being a woman in America today.
"Here we are, standing at a moment when, like Laurey, we want things that we can't describe. We have a profound longing that needs to be fulfilled. And the world is not looking to cooperate with us. That's a woman's life, here in this country," Disney said.
This new Oklahoma! is sexy — and it's so much more.