Jason Gotay’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is everything one would hope Curly McLain’s opening salvo to represent. Gotay is strapping, clean cut, and apparently bursting with unguarded appreciation. The song’s musical arrangement, in fact, all tonight’s arrangements, are flat out terrific. A small, skilled band offers mood and clarity often lost with full orchestra. Writer/Host Ted Chapin notes that lyrics needed to look no further than stage directions from the original source, Lynn Riggs’ 1931Green Grow the Lilacs.
Unlikely collaborators Richard Rodgers, “a jazzy melodist,” and Oscar Hammerstein II, “a romantic lyricist,” both made names for themselves with other partners, Rodgers with Lorenz Hart, and Hammerstein with Jerome Kern. Exemplifying the first team, Nyla Watson offers “You Took Advantage of Me” with spirit, satiny vibrato, and slight hip action. Justin Smith excels on violin. Kerstin Anderson’s “All the Things You Are” accompanied only by Andy Einhorn’s sensitive piano, showcases the second pair with beautiful soprano.
It was Theresa Helburn of The Theatre Guild who had the idea to musicalize Riggs’ play about settlers in Oklahoma Territory. Passing on suggestions of Kurt Weill and Woody Guthrie, she approached Rodgers and Hart. Rodgers, in turn asked Hammerstein whose work he admired. Hart lost interest and dropped out. One columnist wrote “All Broadway gasped when these two (Rodgers and Hammerstein) paired up.”
With the addition of vocalist Phillip Attmore, the company performs five numbers that represent what Broadway was hearing at the time, from Louisiana Purchase, Let’s Face It!, DuBarry Was a Lady, and The Boys From Syracuse. Attmore is something of a ham, but has a solid voice and dances up a storm. Staging is fluid, cute, and visually pleasing. The section however, is something of an odd tangent.
Helburn put together a creative team for the 1943 musical starting with director Rouben Mamoulian who was, Chapin tells us, “difficult.” Agnes de Mille, then “untested,” felt a new western ballet made her the perfect choice for choreographer and went after the new project.
Rodgers and Hammerstein devised a routine they continued throughout their association – starting with lots of conversation at one of their homes and then a thorough outline – which we are shown onscreen. Only two of this show’s original songs were cut out of town. The first, “When I Go Out Walking With My Baby,” is sung by Attmore expertly embodying The Cotton Club more than the Midwest; the second, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” is prettily manifest by Anderson and Gotay.
“Once upon a time, when distractions were fewer and shows didn’t play 30 years, things happened quickly,” Chapin comments. It took the writers only five months to complete Oklahoma! Depending on who one believes, either Walter Winchell or Mike Todd said Away We Go! (its New Haven title) had “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
By Boston, however, confidence was high and when the show reached New York, Brooks Atkinson’s response was that it changed musical theater forever. Hammerstein said, “I now believe this is the nearest approach to Showboat theater has produced,” while Rodgers declared, “Do you know what’s wrong with this show – nothing.”
Robert Russell Bennett’s original vocal arrangement of the title song is pristinely delivered by its few performers. Anderson and Gotay give us “The Surrey with The Fringe On Top” replete with dialogue. It’s clear he has acting chops. Smith’s mandolin adds jauntiness. A self conscious Attmore leads the company in the buoyant “Kansas City” with choreography by tonight’s director, Parker Esse.
Esse addresses de Mille’s contribution. “She understood storytelling, paving the way for real characters in her dances, casting those who could play farmers and ranch hands, not chorines. Laurie’s ballet described her inner struggle.” (We see film.)
Musical Director Andy Einhorn then takes the podium. “In my humble, accurate opinion, Rodgers was one of the best melodists of the twentieth century. “He was a dramaturgical composer.” Gotay and Attmore sing “Pore Jud is Daid.” Curly’s attitude toward his nemesis made deftly apparent.
Einhorn admires Rodger’s ability with waltzes. Watson and Anderson enact “Out of My Dreams” which the MD identifies as “a musical extension of internal feelings.” Anderson is made for Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.
During the last part of this evening Chapin delves into alternate versions of Oklahoma! Watson ably performs a dark, Kurt Weill-like version of “Lonely Room,” ordinarily sung by Jud; Gotay is purposefully gay in “I Can’t Say No” without going over the top. We see images of and hear about productions that featured a full cast of African Americans, same sex couples, and a completely LGBT company.
Anyone who reads me knows I’m a relative purist about messing with original intentions of classic musicals. Written during a certain social period about a specific social period, they deserve to be seen in context as a reflection of the writers’ (and perhaps world’s) ideas. How would they have reached iconic status were this not the case? In my opinion, one should reflect the contemporary with contemporary authors.
Chapin, not only Artistic Director of Lyrics & Lyricists but President and Chief Creative Officer of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, then hard sells Broadway’s current interpretation of Oklahoma! I find the unabashed promotion inappropriate. Otherwise the writer/host is an able raconteur.
“Oklahoma! ran five years and nine months breaking all records. Its national tour lasted 11 years, by which time Rodgers and Hammerstein had written five more shows. So here we are 76 years later…” We’re treated to a montage of clips from various productions over the years. The company then launches into a lively “The Farmer and The Cowman,” whose theme of necessary cooperation is as relevant today as it was then.
Dan Scully’s Projections are low key, painterly and apt.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Parker Esse, Kerstin Anderson, Phillip Attmore, Jason Gotay, Nyla Watson, Ted Chapin
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75
Kerstin Anderson, Phillip Attmore, Jason Gotay, Nyla Watson- Vocals
Andy Einhorn- MD/Piano
Justin Smith- Violin, Scott Kuney- Guitar, Mark Vanderpol- Bass, Perry Cavari- Drums
92Y at Lexington Avenue