Make it new! That’s the mantra of directors everywhere who mean to polish their résumés while riding on the coattails of a classic. Not that the public doesn’t want classics to be made new. Yet as the conductor John Mauceri told Playbill in April 2011, every now and then there is a “profound value to going back to the source.” Hear, hear!
As chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Mauceri realized that creed onstage with an all-student cast and orchestra in a facsimile of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as seen on Broadway in 1943. Luckily for audiences beyond Winston-Salem, a half-million-dollar grant enabled the Emmy Award-winning director David Stern to capture the show in all its glory for UNC-TV, the public-television service of North Carolina. On YouTube, the film has since clocked north of 646,270 views.
Just how authentic is it? Well, a splendid 24-piece pit band plays the same Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations that were heard back at the St. James Theatre. Ageless at 89, Gemze de Lappe, who danced in the ensemble on the first national tour as well as on Broadway, recreated Agnes de Mille’s sassy choreography. The restored picture-postcard sets by Lemuel Ayers, more often seen in midcentury black-and-white production shots, jazz the eyeballs in storybook colors that evoke Grant Wood. And what a backdrop they make for the Arabian Nights palette of the costumes! Fuschia, heliotrope, lime, peach, Yves Klein blue—who knew such dyes even existed in the 1940s? Yet they’re attested by the designer Miles White’s swatch books. Have I mentioned the dizzying panoply of precision-matched stripes and plaids and polka dots?
Joan Roberts, who played the no-nonsense closet romantic Laurey in the original cast, aided the endeavor, giving her youthful successor, the delightful Rebecca Moyes, pointers about their shared character’s inner life. Jennifer Webb, who sparkles as Ado Annie, the girl who cain’t say no, got privileged intel, too, straight from the lips of Celeste Holm, who couldn’t say no when the show was brand-new. On opening night, Roberts had a quibble about some business with a cowboy hat in Act One, but apart from that, her verdict was just what Mauceri was hoping for. “John,” she said, “You got it right.”
That verdict paled, though, before the rave from the composer’s daughter Mary Rodgers, who flew down to North Carolina for the revival with grandchildren in tow. A composer in her own right as well as a musical factotum active in broadcasting and higher education, Mary (as she was universally known) knew everything there is to know about the Golden Age of the American Musical and all that followed. (“When your father writes Oklahoma!,” she used to purr, overruling friends who tried to spring for a dinner check, “you can pick up the tab.”) “John,” Mary told Mauceri after the curtain fell on the UNSCA Oklahoma!, “it’s better than the original!”
As Curly, the straight-arrow cowpoke who hangs up his spurs to take charge of Laurey’s farm, Kyle Guglielmo has the smoothest shave you’ll ever see and an easy-going baritone that makes his music sing. Braxton Molinaro is the morose Jud Fry, seething with resentment. Charles Osborne kicks up his heels as Ado Annie’s fickle but jealous beau Will Parker, the heaven-sent gander to her goose.
Oklahoma! is available for streaming on YouTube in two parts
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii