I love the writing of Frank Rich, who casually slips “peripatetic” into an expository paragraph about the author of the source material for Oklahoma! This is a fascinating study of how production choices can have a huge impact on the meaning of an artistic work, even if the script doesn’t change at all. (The instrument of Jud’s death changes from a knife to a gun, eliminating the convenient explanation that Jud fell on his own knife, and the impromptu trial scene, usually played for laughs, is performed “in a conspiratorial near-whisper”.)
At its birth, the show was to its America what Hamilton has been to ours: both an unexpected record-smashing box-office phenomenon and a reassuring portrait of our past that lifted up theatergoers at a time of great anxiety about the country’s future. Its Broadway opening took place less than 16 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when America was shipping its sons off to war and still digging out of the Great Depression. Like Hamilton, too, Oklahoma! was deemed artistically revolutionary for its time. A self-styled “musical drama” rather than a musical comedy, it dispensed with the usual leggy chorus line and leveraged its songs to advance character and plot.
The promise of the Great America we associate with the show is still fully present — the democratic America of communal harmony set forth in the saccharine Act Two song espousing how “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” But for once, equal time is given to the less egalitarian America, in which a community will vilify and cast off an outsider like Jud, a bitter underclass loner with an appetite for drink and pornography. I left the theater wondering: Had these two contrasting Americas always resided within Oklahoma!, or was this spikier version vandalism by a director imposing his own revisionist spin on a quaint theatrical warhorse?
—Frank Rich, Vulture