Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, Oklahoma!, debuted on Broadway in 1943. The show surprised audiences with its innovative changes to the format of the American musical, not to mention its memorable songs and characters. Since then, it has become a classic performed regularly in regional theaters, high schools and international stages all over the world (and, of course, in Broadway revivals). The version that’s recently opened is a whole new approach to the show.
This radical reimagining of Oklahoma!, which began with smaller productions in upstate New York and Brooklyn, has drawn critical raves and astonished audiences with its stripped-down realism. Directed by Daniel Fish, it retains all the original text and songs but has a much more modern feel. It’s set it in a barnlike community hall, the cast has been winnowed down to 11 actors, and the band has just seven musicians.
Here are some of the many reasons you should check out what will surely be one of the most talked about (and award-winning) shows of the current Broadway season.
1. The theater got a “makeunder.” The first big change you’ll notice about this production is right when you enter the theater. Circle in the Square, the rare Broadway house without a traditional proscenium, has been made over into a very bright woodsy space that feels like a country community center. Blonde plywood covers the walls, festive mylar streamers straddle the stage and colored lights dangle from the ceiling.
2. You can sit on the stage. The show’s long, rectangular stage has communal tables set up along either side, with wooden folding chairs for those daring enough to sit on stage. Be warned—you may become part of the show as actors sing to you, dance on your table or spray you with a can of beer during one of the show’s more raucous musical moments.
3. It’s got a whole new sound. Generally, an older show like Oklahoma! has a large pit orchestra with upward of 25 members. As mentioned, this one numbers just seven, and they’re not wearing tuxes or ties—they’re dressed as casually as the cast and play instruments like banjo and accordion that sound more Nashville than New York. Daniel Kluger, the show’s innovative arranger, has kept all the famous melodies and harmonies you know and placed them in a more country and bluegrass context—resulting in fresh takes on tunes like “People Will Say We’re In Love” and “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” (with Curly accompanying himself on guitar).
4. The lights are bright on Broadway. The house lights don’t go down when this production starts. They stay on for most of the performance, lighting the audience members as much as the players and making them a part of the show. You might want to dress up a little more than usual—or maybe dress down to match the contemporary look of the actors onstage, who sport worn denim and rugged plaids.
5. They’ll feed you. You may notice colorful crockpots adorning the long tables on stage. Those are not just props—they hold gallons of chili. During intermission, audience members are welcome to enjoy a serving of the spicy down-home dish plus a chunk of cornbread. The communal feast is a good chance to refuel before the second act.
6. The dream ballet will blow your mind. One of the major innovations of the original production was Agnes de Mille’s dream ballet that ended the first act, featuring real ballet dancers who doubled for the leads. Now there’s a new ballet—starring just one dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton, who athletically performs a contemporary routine choreographed by John Heginbotham. The musical accompaniment, too, is bracingly different: more country-rock opera than orchestral.
7. Ado Annie still “cain’t say no.” In 2015, actor Ali Stroker made history as the first actor who uses a wheelchair to perform on Broadway, playing the role of Anna in the revival of Spring Awakening. Here she makes the role of firecracker Ado Annie her own with a raunchy, rousing take on the character-defining song “I Cain’t Say No.” You can bet the farm Stroker will get some awards attention for this memorable performance.
8. There’s a newish ending. No spoilers, but the end of this show is a bit of a change from the original. While the text has not been revised, some particulars of how the final scenes play out have. No matter how you feel about the tweaks—and they have caused a bit of controversy—you’ll surely be discussing them after the show.
Oklahoma! is playing at the Circle in the Square Theater through January 19, 2020.