"I'd like to teach you all a little sayin' -
And learn these words by heart the wayyou should:
'I don't say I'm no better than anybody else,
But I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good.'"
Aunt Eller Murphy first uttered these words of wisdom 59 years ago — center stage at the St. James Theatre — a few minutes into the second act of Oklahoma! during that hoedown dustup when the farmer and the cowman try their dangdest to be friends.
Hearing Trevor Nunn reprise them now, in solemn king's English, is a special hoot. The head of the Royal National Theatre in London and the Brit who helmed Broadway's two longest-running shows (the dearly departed Cats and the still-spinning Les Miz) has taken it upon himself to rethink The Great American Musical. His version, an Anglo-American venture where Yank choreographer Susan Stroman shared the weight of reinvention, bowed to great acclaim at the National in 1998 and has now set up shop at the Gershwin Theatre.
To find fresh fields in a much-mined landmark musical like Oklahoma!, the two followed Aunt Eller's axiom. It became a mantra — words to work by or, more precisely, rework by.
"At first, it seems like a smart remark, a quick little joke," Nunn concedes, "but actually the music changes at that point to something closer to hymnal, closer to a Sunday School event. Eller, I think, is saying to everybody, 'Let's remember why we're all here. Let's remember we're all people who've arrived in a promised land because we thought we could create a better world than the privileged Old World in Europe.' How do you express those beliefs at their simplest? 'Never say you're better than anybody else' — that's not the new world we're dreaming of — 'but also respect yourself sufficiently never to say that you're worse than someone else.' It's a fundamental American idea, and Oklahoma! is about fundamental American values. It's about pioneering, and it's a reminder of those values. It was important for Rodgers and Hammerstein to stress the primal, moral nature of those values in 1943, the second year of the war as far as Americans were concerned." Aunt Eller's homily also resonates with Stroman. "For me, it was the key to the choreography," she admits. "Whenever I choreograph any show, I try to find a vocabulary for the dance and a theme. In The Producers, it was pure comedy. Contact is about contact dancing, about partnering. In The Music Man, it's a Pied Piper theme. But Oklahoma! is about fighting for territory and fighting for land, so the choreography is very masculine, very challenging in the sense there are challenge steps — steps that say, 'Can you top this?' There's fighting in it, so a lot of the choreography is fight choreography."
Nunn with his three Tonys had no trouble spotting Stroman with her five, but the thing that prompted him to invite her into the Oklahoma! fold was a marvelous montage she staged for Hal Prince's Show Boat showing the passing of years. "It was, I thought, just a wonderful use of dance," recalls Nunn, "and it gave such an epic dimension to the show."
The prospect of loosening the R&H score from the set-in-stone Agnes de Mille choreography for the first time was daunting for Stroman, but she rose to the bait because it meant working with Nunn at the National. "I knew Trevor would make it a different Oklahoma! — see it through different eyes — and that intrigued me. I knew that, in fact, it would be treated like a new piece even though it is certainly revered. In fact, Oklahoma! changed musicals forever — it was never the same again — and Agnes de Mille opened the door for many choreographers because of the way choreography was then perceived."
First step for the Oklahoma! New Deal was new arrangements. "The Rodgers and Hammerstein estate allowed me to create new arrangements to make my own choreography," says Stroman. "When I do any show, I do new arrangements. Part of what I do is develop the music with and for the choreography. I make sure the music supports the choreography. That's part of my process, so it's important I always have an arranger."
New choreography led naturally enough to new characterizations and made the teamwork of Stroman and Nunn all the more seamless — Stro-Nunn, as it were. "The story of the creative team has to be total collaboration," insists Nunn. "Susan spent a great deal of time in my rehearsals, and I spent a great deal of time at hers, and we spent a lot of time together with the company. There was never any feeling that this is as far as the director goes and this is where the choreographer takes over. We never wanted that. There were moments where Susan said, 'You stage it, and I'll heighten it into where we need to go.'"
The closeness of their collaboration proved contagious for the cast, and that played right into Nunn's overall game plan. "I'm particularly fascinated in theatre with works about communities," he says. "I don't know quite where that started. I suppose when I did Shakespeare's Roman plays at Stratford — I did a huge amount of work there with an ensemble, trying to create a populace that went all the way through those plays. That led to doing things like Porgy and Bess, which is entirely dependent upon bringing alive a believable community in every detail. I suppose one could say absolutely the same is true of Nicholas Nickleby, having to create a number of communities with one ensemble. I found myself drawn to Oklahoma! because it was so dependent, in its way, on creating a believable community — and a very rooted community — so that was my starting point."
This time, when they spell out O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, it's a community sing — and the exclamation mark is silent — but it's "jist as good" as those that have gone before.
—By Monty Arnold