Equity Stands Firm on Americans in Oklahoma!

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and Terri Paddock What's On Stage, London and David Lefkowitz
17 Feb 1999

The Broadway transfer of the heralded Royal National Theatre revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! continues to be in jeopardy.



The Broadway transfer of the heralded Royal National Theatre revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! continues to be in jeopardy.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh had hoped to keep the musical's London cast intact when the show came to Broadway this fall. However, Actors' Equity recently rejected the producer's request. Director Trevor Nunn and Mary Rodgers (who represented the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate) appeared before Equity council in a last ditch effort to reverse the decision, but in a statement released Feb. 16, the union stood by its previous ruling.

Equity's governing Council emphasized its "profound respect and admiration" for Nunn, but President Ron Silver said the union was "pledged to honor" the hard-fought agreement between itself and theatre producers regarding international exchanges.

"We're deeply disappointed," Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization Vice President Bert Fink told Playbill On-Line, "but we respect Equity's decision. The production is now postponed indefinitely, and it looks like it won't come in. There's no way around that. Actually, the show was never officially announced for Broadway, so it can't be officially canceled, but this certainly stops any plans for it."

Fink noted that the meeting between Equity and Nunn & Rodgers was "very collegial, without rancor, artist to artist. It wasn't about hiding behind memos and contracts, it was a dialogue. Mary went into convey just how much this production meant to us, to her, to Jamie Hammerstein [who recently passed away]. We haven't licensed a production of Oklahoma! to Broadway in twenty years, and we'd be hard-pressed to imagine a production that would measure up to this one.

"Our position is that it all boils down to Trevor's schedule. It's a unique situation, in that he's incredibly busy and artistic director of the National Theatre, which have [three] auditoriums to be programmed. He doesn't have ten weeks to do casting, callbacks, rehearsals of an American cast of Oklahoma!. Just this week he's directing Not About Nightingales at Circle in the Square and co-directing two plays at the National. Maybe in three to four years he can set aside ten weeks, but that's a lifetime in this business. And the irony is there was every expectation that this British cast would be on Broadway for a limited time only, then to be replaced by an American cast on tour and possibly in the New York production."

Mackintosh's wish to retain the British cast apparently hinges on Nunn's schedule. In a January letter to Mackintosh, quoted by the New York Post, Nunn stated his cramped schedule "means that I couldn't be starting work on the show again from scratch.... So the only way my production of Oklahoma! can get to New York is if the original company play the opening few months. That way, I would have time to explain to an American production team how the show was arrived at. I could attend final auditions for an American cast to take over."

Mackintosh has said that, if Equity stands firm, the show, which recently won four Olivier Awards (including Best Musical Production) may not reach Broadway for two or three seasons.

American and British Equity control the comings and goings of actors and productions from both countries. Typically, a trade is worked out, in which, say, a British cast is allowed to play Broadway in exchange for a future visit to England by an American cast. Over the years, however, the issue has become a thorny one, rankling producers and actors alike and producing a small controversy every couple of seasons. Equity initially refused to allow Britain's Theatre de Complicite's 1997 production of Ionesco's The Chairs to travel to Broadway. Also, British actor and Skylight star Michael Gambon was, at first, not given a stamp of approval by the union, who questioned whether he merited star status. (Established star actors can cross the Atlantic with relatively no restrictions.) Other past incidents have centered on bids by Colm Wilkinson, Sarah Brightman and Jonathan Pryce to recreate their roles in the New York productions of Les Miz, Phantom, and Miss Saigon, respectively. In all the above examples, the actors and/or shows were allowed to come to Broadway. The latter three shows were all Mackintosh productions.

Oklahoma! may be a particularly sensitive subject for Equity, given the largeness of the cast and the distinctly American quality of the piece.

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All the principals who made Oklahoma!'s three-month run at the National's Olivier a sell-out returned for the 23-week season at the Lyceum, presented by Mackintosh. The West End show opened Jan. 21 and continues until June 26, 1999.

This cast includes Maureen Lipman as Aunt Eller, Hugh Jackman as Curly, Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey, Shuler Hensley as Jud Fry, Vicki Simon as Ado Annie, Peter Polycarpou as Ali Hakim and Jimmy Johnston as Will Parker.

They are joined by Helen Anker, Julie Barnes, Luke Baxter, Sarah Bayliss, Leigh Constantine, Marilyn Cutts, Amanda C Davies, Zoe Dawson, Susie Drumbreck, Tom Dwyer, Howard Ellis, Elizabeth Gee, Sam Henson, Sarah Ingram, Nicola Keen, Sidney Livingstone, Fergus Logan, David Lucan, Helen Missing, David Shelmerdine, Rebecca Thornhill and Kevin Wainwright.

Trevor Nunn's re-interpretation of the musical, which finished its run at the NRT Oct. 3, was the National's biggest hit to date, having continually broken box-office records in its opening week and selling out for the entirety of its run. Last week, Nunn was presented with the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical.

Bert Fink, vice president of public relations at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, in an interview with Playbill On-Line, described the RNT's Oklahoma! as "a radiant and exhilarating production." In addition to Nunn's "fresh minting," it features new choreography from Susan Stroman, a departure from the signature Agnes De Mille work. The rest of the RNT creative team includes Anthony Ward (set and costume design), David Hersey (lighting), Paul Groothuis (sound) and John Owen Edwards (musical direction). Original orchestrations are by Robert Russell Bennett with additional orchestrations by William David Brohn and new dance music arranged by David Krane.

Set in the American West at the turn of the century, Oklahoma! tells the story of young Laurey and the two rivals for her affections: Curly, a cowboy, and Jud, the hired farmhand. The classic score includes "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and "People Will Say We're in Love" as well as the rousing title song.

Oklahoma! , first seen in London at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1947, features music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and is based on the play Green Grown the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. The last major London revival was at the Palace Theatre in 1979, also produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

For further information, contact the Lyceum box office on 011-44-870 606-3446.