Essay: A Record of a Performance

This new film of “Oklahoma!” preserves all the freshness and vitality of the original staging at London’s Royal National Theatre, the evocative designs of Anthony Ward, and the stunning choreography of Broadway’s own Susan Stroman, who is also responsible for the choreography in the smash hit musical version of “The Producers.”

Filming musicals, of course, is always difficult. In this instance, Trevor Nunn and his co-director, Chris Hunt, opted for preserving the stage setting and, indeed, the atmosphere in the Olivier auditorium in the National itself. We zoom into the audience as the overture strikes up, and many of the musical numbers and characters’ exits are followed by “live” applause and a cutaway panning shot of the auditorium, with its mauve seats, concrete interior, and mass of palpably enthusiastic, casually dressed theatergoers.

We can see the revolving stage go around. We know that the backdrop is painted blue and the Oklahoma landscape a sandy orange. And the scene changes are clearly visible, as when the action moves from the Claremore train station to the high cornfields, where we first meet the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, as he trundles on with his wagon of ribbons and bibelots with Ado Annie in tow.

“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” that famous opening number, with Aunt Eller churning butter and the irrepressible cowboy Curly appearing at the farmhouse in his carefree manner, dressed in a cotton shirt and leather pants, is one of the most gorgeous and most simple in musical theater history. Hugh Jackman, who plays Curly with such dynamic charm and appeal, says that the lyrics of that first song have nice big vowels, making it easy to open his mouth and let rip without feeling he has to strain for effect.

All the same, this film is very much a record of a performance, without any false attempt to “make a film,” except where the camera can close right in on the actors’ expressions or take a sideways view of the stage action. We therefore have a double bonus of seeing a great theater show without feeling we are watching it through a static frame. A lot of “Oklahoma!” is about dream and pretense, so when Curly boasts that he will take Laurey to the box social in a “surrey with the fringe on top,” he does so while sitting astride a rusty old agricultural contraption. The ambition is rooted in the everyday life on a farm, the simplicity of theater.

This approach preserves the theatrical architecture of the musical in all its glory, with the swirling choreography executed in a seemingly confined space, but explosively inventive nonetheless. And Oscar Hammerstein’s libretto, loyally based on the 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, is revealed as a masterpiece of construction, every scene flowing to the next and through the matchless score of Richard Rodgers. The composer’s daughter, Mary Rodgers, is on record with her view of Trevor Nunn’s version: “It is a better production than the original. And I’m one of the few people who saw the original.”

The main narrative strand concerns Laurey’s choice of partner for the social. Will she go with Curly, the cowboy, or with the moody loner Jud Fry, the hired farmhand? That choice, and indeed that rivalry, between the cattle rancher and the farming community — expressed in the rousing Act II opener, “The Farmer and the Cowman (Should Be Friends)” — reflects what Nunn calls “the historical inevitability” of the musical and indeed what actually happened once this Indian territory became a new state in the Union. The contest was refined into pure theater at the end of Act I, when a ballet sequence — staged in the 1943 premiere by the legendary Agnes de Mille — takes us into the interior emotional world of courtship, seduction, and obsession in the love triangle.

Above all, though, “Oklahoma!” is about a new dawn for a new love, a new school, a new frontier, and a new state. This bursting sense of change is what characterizes the Nunn revival, and not even the slight pall cast on the proceedings by the ugly scenes following the wedding of Curly and Laurey can spoil the overall mood. A new society must discover how best to exercise the laws of justice, and the homely, conciliatory wisdom of Maureen Lipman’s Aunt Eller will remain a crucial ingredient.

On Broadway three years ago, the entrance to the Gershwin Theatre was garlanded with a great banner quoting the title song: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.” When the camera pans along the line of actors at Curly and Laurey’s wedding feast and the female voices rise in melodic descant, we are witnessing the birth of a nation, no less.

This is the power and the glory of this revival of “Oklahoma!,” and it remains as potent a statement in a world that has changed in so many ways as when the show gave so much joy to so many people on both sides of the Atlantic during and after the Second World War.

Americans still have plenty to be proud of, and “Oklahoma!” reminds them why.