Interview: Trevor Nunn, Director

Sir Trevor Nunn, aged 63, directed “Oklahoma!” for the National Theatre in London in 1998 and filmed this screen adaptation before the production moved to the West End the following year. The revival opened on Broadway in March 2002. Sir Trevor was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 18 years (1968-1986) and artistic director of the National Theatre for five years (1997-2002). He has directed many musicals and operas, including the world premieres of “Cats,” “Starlight Express,” “Les Misérables,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and acclaimed revivals of “Porgy and Bess,” “South Pacific,” and “My Fair Lady.”

GREAT PERFORMANCES: Why did you choose to do “Oklahoma!”?

Trevor Nunn: Because I love any work that involves, in one way or another, the creation of a community. I love pieces that have a strong social context, a foreground and a background, and I love to have as many stories as possible. I saw “Oklahoma!” again entirely because of my children. I watched the old film over their shoulders and saw how this wonderful score had elements of hymnal and folk music, Aaron Copland, as well as romantic song. And I realized that a musical about people from the sticks who were alive 70 years ago must have seemed such a doomed thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein to take on. Yet, this was the musical that changed everything, mainly because Hammerstein insisted on writing the words, that is, book and lyrics, before Rodgers wrote any music. So the music had to serve the drama of the musical, if you like.

GP: You have a live audience in the film. How does that work?

TN: We filmed a performance with an audience, and through the audience, and then filmed in a studio for just under two weeks which, when you’re dealing with choreography and “playback” — which is actors singing in the studio with prerecorded orchestra and voices — is not all that long a time! But I had filmed in a similar way when I directed “The Comedy of Errors,” which had musical sections, and “Porgy and Bess,” with the same producer, Richard Price, so I knew what was needed.

GP: What are the gains and the losses of filming a theater production?

TN: The most immediate and important gain is reaching such a huge audience. And on film, you can get the detail and intensity of a performance absolutely clear. You can also see what’s going on behind the actors’ eyes, whether they’re speaking or singing, and it’s wonderful to know that all the detailed work in rehearsal is going to survive on film. I love the gain of the constant variety of points of view and angles. The choreographic numbers refresh themselves in that way. The main loss is the reality of people singing for you on the night, the ingredient of stamina in the performance, and the possibility, of course, that something could always go wrong.

GP: Hugh Jackman is well known now from the X-MEN movies and his star turn on Broadway in “The Boy from Oz,” and has been voted one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by PEOPLE magazine. But he was completely unknown when you cast him as Curly.

TN: I cast him first as Joe Gillis in the Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.” I always ask people at musical auditions to do an acting piece as well. He did a speech of Henry V’s, which is very, very unusual … and when he came to audition for Curly, he did a bravura bit of Hotspur [from "Henry IV"], a very good idea for Curly! Hugh has a great quality of revelation and also a purity of spirit, which can make that connection with the great outside landscape of “Oklahoma!” He has that sort of soul.

GP: Shuler Hensley, too, is marvelous as Jud. He won an Olivier Award for his performance in London, but is even less well known than Hugh Jackman was!

TN: Shuler is one of those incredibly talented Americans who couldn’t get work in America, so he found employment in Germany in American musicals. He married an English girl and came to a chorus audition in London. He was a big guy who could dance a bit, who might have been one of the farmhands. After a little work together, it was clear he was Jud. Look no further. He’s dynamite.

GP: How important was your work with the choreographer Susan Stroman?

TN: Nothing I did was without her. We spent most of our time in each other’s rehearsals. I don’t like working with people who guard their own territory. All the best work is done in collaboration. And it was always an idea we shared that we should have principals who could dance the dream ballet so that it wasn’t, as it is usually is, a separate entity performed by dancers you never see again. For the first time, the ballet is a further exploration of the characters themselves, and we couldn’t have done it without Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey. She had been a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Portugal. She also sings like a bird and is a very fine actress.

GP: What next: is it Shakespeare or musical theater, finally, for you?

TN: It is both. I have never, ever, made a categorical differentiation between the two. I’m longing to do “West Side Story” one day, and I’m talking to Ian McKellen about “King Lear.” I would give anything to do both. Meanwhile, I’m planning the new Lloyd Webber, “The Woman in White,” for London next year. I’m doing a Shakespeare, a workshop of a new play towards a production, television, I’m talking about doing a film, I’m doing an opera in Salzburg … so I’m having a great time. And “Oklahoma!” was a real high point.

Interview by writer Michael Coveney for GREAT PERFORMANCES Online.