“They say it’s ‘the dark Oklahoma!’. What does that even mean?” Image: Marc Brenner

Your ‘Oklahoma!’

Is this West End production dark, light, intelligent, dumb, something else? Its director, Daniel Fish, is adamant: that’s for audiences to decide
March 1, 2023

In the 16 years since he first developed his production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, American director Daniel Fish has come to loathe some of its marketing straplines. “They’re like: ‘It’s not your grandmother’s Oklahoma!’.” But, as he tells me, “It’s not fair to grandmothers. I think there are grandmothers who might have an interesting experience with this production.”

Fish’s reinvention of this musical has a cult following in the US. Earlier productions—not least Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film—have made a wholesome idyll of this Midwestern landscape, where heroine Laurey must choose between two suitors. With a dogged fidelity to the text but a sharp change in emphasis, Fish has exposed what Rodgers and Hammerstein also tell us about a rural community and how it treats loners and makes scapegoats. 

Two team members have stayed with Fish since he built the project for drama students at Bard College in 2007. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski has changed our focus—literally—from Oklahoma!’s insiders to its outsiders. Patrick Vaill, discovered by Fish as a student, has revolutionised the part of Jud Fry, the misfit farmhand who loses Laurey to swaggering cowboy Curly. It was a Broadway hit in 2019, and now their production comes to London’s West End after a sell-out run last year at the Young Vic. Fish and Vaill spoke to me during rehearsals in Bethnal Green.

Fish has more to say about the nature of pre-show buzz. “They say it’s ‘the dark Oklahoma!’. What does that even mean? Ninety-eight per cent of the show is in blazing light! This idea of trying to say it’s a specific thing: it’s bullshit. It’s not our place to say it’s dark or bright or happy or sad. That belongs to the viewer.”

British audiences may bring less cultural baggage to the show than American ones—or perhaps different cultural baggage. Vaill is refreshingly wary of making claims about what Brits may or may not read into this production, although he does venture that the show presents a community dealing with rapid change and turning on each other. A web of gossip results in mob justice. In Fish’s production, this gets a twist that will feel familiar to anyone with an internet connection.

The production has evolved in an era of political disruption and disinformation in both the US and UK. “We’re into our fourth US presidency since we’ve been exploring this show,” reflects Vaill. “We had ‘Dubya’, Obama, Trump… and now Joe Biden. There’s one speech in the play, the proposal scene to Laurey, when he says, ‘Country-a-changin’, got to change with it!’”

Fish chimes in: “When we did it again at Bard in 2015, they had just passed marriage equality; then we were doing it during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. It meant something different then.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical has always had dark American history at its heart. “It’s based on [Green Grow the Lilacs] a play by Lynn Riggs, who was a gay Cherokee cowboy,” Vaill reminds me. “To go to college, Riggs sold his ‘Cherokee allotment’ that had been apportioned to him by the government as part of ethnically cleansing the territory of Oklahoma. So this piece is born out of a really fucked-up country that is built on stolen land. And it takes place in an area where, 20 years after our story is set, a massacre happened.” He’s talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which up to 300 people were killed and many more injured, when white mobs attacked a black neighbourhood in 1921.

So who does this show belong to? Fish’s production, which features a diverse cast,  has also been termed “the black Oklahoma!”, “the feminist Oklahoma!”—even “the incel Oklahoma!”. Conversations about diversity are ongoing in theatre; in January, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa announced a plan to “welcome an all-Black identifying audience” for one night before backtracking.

Fish is cautiously resistant. “I don’t mean in any way to say that I know what it is like to be a black person or a woman in the US. Yet there are ways in which I believe that people are capable of identifying with aspects of another person. That’s part of why I read, why I go to movies, why I go to the theatre. Because I think that if you can’t… it makes me just want to put a fucking bullet in my head.”

“Oklahoma!” is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 2nd September