Trevor Nunn was the director and I was the choreographer on Oklahoma! at the National Theater in London in 1998. The six-month sold-out engagement broke all previous box office records. The producer, Cameron Mackintosh, transferred us to the West End, where we played the Lyceum Theater, and ultimately, moved us to Broadway.
My collaboration with Trevor Nunn was very assured and always interesting. He wanted this to be a new Oklahoma!, a darker Oklahoma!, one that was based on the history of the American West.
He went back to the original source material, the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. He incorporated several lines of dialogue from the play into this version.
The choreography of Oklahoma!, was based on research of the American West at the turn of the century. Fighting for territory in America is one of the show’s main themes—fighting with fists, guns, and words.
Because of this research, including many images of the Old West, I was inspired to make the choreography of this Oklahoma! rugged and athletic.
Even the women moved like real pioneer gals with mud on their skirts. “In Many A New Day” they strut around, mocking the men and their bad behavior.
Throughout the show, the choreography is fight-oriented — executed forcefully and, at times, comically. The characters even play challenge games like “Can you top this?” using dance.
“The Farmer and the Cowman” begins with opposing teams in mid-fight, then choreographically each foe one-upping the other with athletic steps. It also contains folk dancing, elements of square dancing, and clogging. The number highlights the principals and the personalities of the townsfolk through dance. Aunt Eller is used as a catalyst all through the number trying to convince everyone to get along. Even Pop Carnes has his own eccentric dance.
The number has a complete arc. It starts with opposing teams yelling, fighting, and challenging one another. There are sections of farmers versus cowboys, as well as men versus women. By the end of the number, the full company has linked arms in solidarity, symbolizing that they must get along in order to build a strong country.
Another scene in Oklahoma! with a great deal of choreography is the Dream Ballet that ends Act One. Trevor Nunn and I spoke about the possibility of having a Curly and a Laurey who could actually dance the leads in the Dream Ballet. Traditionally there’ has always been a Dream Curly and a Dream Laurey. We both agreed it would be more powerful if these actors who the audience had invested in all evening were to actually perform the dance instead of introducing two new ‘dream’ figures. That alone would make it a new Oklahoma!.
We were lucky to have Hugh Jackman as Curly, Josephina Gabrielle as Laurey, and Shuler Hensley as Jud—all true triple threats. Because of Josephina’s extensive ballet background, I was able to create a ballet that was a true lyrical extension of her character. And because Hugh and Shuler’s dance abilities were so strong, the dancing and the fighting looked instinctual and believable.
Our wonderful set designer, Anthony Ward, gave us a cornfield onstage. A slew of myths and folktales surround American cornfields. There is magic inside them – crop circles, dancing scarecrows, singing corn maidens. And many a couple has experienced their first kiss there. So the middle of a cornfield was a perfect setting for Laurey to find herself dreaming.
The story of the ballet begins with a coming of age dance of joy. She’s wearing her first dress, dreaming about a wedding between her and Curly. When Jud appears to steal her away, her dream turns into a nightmare. The choreography transforms from loving, bright, lyrical movement to steps that are arch and rhythmic, with shadowy sensuality.
Laurey awakens with a terrifying scream, drenched in a cold sweat. Her realization that a darker side of her character – those stubborn, jealous, even intolerant aspects that live within us all – have created a tragic ending to her dream. At the end of Act One, we see Laurey wrestling with guilt that her actions might be to blame and, in turn, could be an ominous sign of things to come.
As with most shows, there is always a prop that stands out. In Oklahoma! it was the lasso. I used a lasso in much of Will Parker’s choreography. A lasso is a tool that most real cowboys are never without. Twirling a lasso and capturing a target is a difficult technique to master. (My old baton twirling days come in handy with props like this like.). Our Will Parker, Jimmy Johnson, did it with great aplomb. It was also a metaphor – trying to lasso his love, Ado Annie.
In his number “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City,”, Will Parker tells the tale of his visit to Kansas City, seeing people dance ragtime steps. So I gave him his lasso and elements of eccentric ragtime choreography for him to do in old cowboy boots, all of which gave the dance character.
The Hammerstein Estate allowed me to change the dance arrangements to match my choreography. David Krane was the masterful dance arranger. His ability to understand dance and translate it into music is a true gift. He is like a musical tailor, taking Rodgers’ music and elevating it to match the visual. It was as if Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves were with me in the rehearsal room.
The whole experience of discovering this great American musical at London’s National Theatre was hugely enlightening. Having the opportunity to choreograph, analyze, and dig deep into a classic like Oklahoma! got me closer to understanding the art of developing a new musical.
The production of Oklahoma! in London at the National and on the West End was heavily awarded and I was honored with my second Laurence Olivier Award. The best part of the experience, though, was collaborating with a director I had admired for so long, Trevor Nunn, and all the brave actors in that company. Even though I was in London, I learned a great deal about the American West.
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs
Direction by Trevor Nunn
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set and Costume Design by Anthony Ward
Lighting Design by David Hersey
Sound Design by Paul Groothuis
Musical Direction by John Owen Edwards