Listen to the Sound of Love Reinvented in ‘Oklahoma!’ (Headphones On) (Published 2019) (2022)

Listen to the Sound of Love Reinvented in ‘Oklahoma!’ (Headphones On) (Published 2019) (1)

How did a lush throwback like “People Will Say We’re in Love” become the lean, sexy, countrified number being sung today? Follow along as we break it down.

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno as Laurey and Curly in “Oklahoma!”Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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By Jesse Green

How do you make a classic song sound — and feel — totally different without changing its melody, harmony or a single word of its lyrics? How did this version of “People Will Say We’re in Love”

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— become this one?

The 1943 Broadway hit “Oklahoma!” was a game-changer in many ways, including its unglamorized depiction of the American frontier and the violent death of a major character in the second act. The songs, developing the plot instead of distracting from it, helped establish the “integrated” musical that made Broadway’s Golden Age golden.

But one thing the composer Richard Rodgers and the librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, in their first collaboration, kept fairly traditional was the sound of the leading couple’s first duet: “People Will Say We’re in Love.” As originally written and performed, the bantering back-and-forth between the cowboy Curly and the ranch girl Laurey — a “list of don’ts” discreet lovers should live by — had the contours of old-fashioned operetta: coy, sweet, soaring.

Operetta was not what the director Daniel Fish had in mind when he conceptualized a revival of the musical that would expose its underlying danger and violence. His production’s focus on Laurey — and how her romantic choices reflect a woman’s limited powers in her era and perhaps ours — put particular pressure on “People Will Say We’re in Love” to express those themes.

As such, sweet and coy weren’t going to cut it. If the operetta style made sense in 1943 as a way of suggesting the world of 1906, something earthier and more immediately accessible was needed to match Mr. Fish’s interpretation decades later. For a production emphasizing sex, deprivation and loneliness, the sound of country and bluegrass music was a logical choice.

ImageListen to the Sound of Love Reinvented in ‘Oklahoma!’ (Headphones On) (Published 2019) (3)

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But the marching orders from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which controls the way “Oklahoma!” can be produced, were to leave the essential elements of the songs alone, meaning no alteration of melodies, harmonies or rhythms. Not that anyone wanted to change them; they’re basically unimprovable.

So how did a lush throwback like “People Will Say We’re in Love” become the sexy, stripped-down, countrified number being sung in the current revival and on its just-released cast album?

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[Why did it take so long for a full recording? The many-decades odyssey to get “Oklahoma!” right.]

Enter the production’s orchestrator and music supervisor, Daniel Kluger. He and the music director, Nathan Koci, along with a group of instrumentalists who have been with the project for years, sought to build a totally new sound world on the sturdy armature of Rodgers’s music.

“When one set of variables is fixed,” Mr. Kluger said, “others come into play.”

Here are four of those variables — or as Hammerstein almost put it, a list of do’s for you.

Instrumentation

The first musical difference you notice at Circle in the Square, where the revival is playing, is a visible one: The musicians aren’t in a pit but onstage with the actors, costumed as if for a hootenanny. There are also far fewer of them. Instead of the 28 players called for in Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations — five woodwinds, seven brass, 13 strings, guitar, percussion and harp — there are now just seven, with no brass or woodwinds and only one violin, cello and bass.

The new instrumentation favors plucked and strummed sounds (like those made by banjo, mandolin and guitar) over smooth, legato sounds (like those made by clarinets, French horns and bowed violins). The overall effect is more like country music than operetta: dry and spare instead of sweet and smooth.

Listen to the opening notes of both versions of the song: four chords building to the first words of the introductory verse:

So where the 1943 version has a full string section playing “arco” (with bows), the new version has the three string players playing pizzicato (with their fingertips), along with guitar, banjo and mandolin:

The attack suggests that the playful lyrics, in which Curly and Laurey accuse one another of overdoing their romantic gestures, will have a sharper edge than we’re used to. The plot bears that out, as the farmhand Jud Fry becomes dangerously fixated on Laurey. In this rendition, “People Will Say We’re in Love” is not just a love song in playful disguise, it’s a warning.

The new orchestration also connects the score to the prairie, with instruments ordinary people used to play in fiddle bands. The addition of a pedal steel guitar in Curly’s chorus, which he sings while playing an acoustic guitar onstage, amps up the bluegrass sound with its twangy accent.

Key

In Rodgers’s manuscript both choruses of the song, one for Laurey and one for Curly, are notated in the key of C, probably because, with no flats or sharps, it’s the quickest way to get a draft down on paper. On the 1943 original cast recording and in the 1955 movie, Laurey sings hers a half tone up, in D flat. (The published version is another half tone up, in D.) Any of these keys puts the singer — Joan Roberts onstage, Shirley Jones in the movie — in a soprano sweet spot, with top notes that ring:

Roberts soars to a sweet F on the 1943 original cast album. But for the current revival, Laurey’s chorus has been transposed down to the key of A Major, taking her into a smoky belt range that starts low and never gets above a C sharp:

In the lowered version, Ms. Jones never goes all-out soprano.

Without those high notes, and the ringing tone that comes with them, all traces of operetta are gone. There’s no more showing off for the audience or even for Curly; it’s as if Laurey has other things on her mind than making pretty sounds. She’s playful, but worried.

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The opposite effect is achieved when Curly’s verse is abruptly restored to D flat, letting him sing like the glib and happy cowboy he is, mostly unaware of the danger ahead:

Even in the same key, the stupendous Alfred Drake, the original Curly, produced a totally different sound. He doesn’t sound like a cowboy; he sounds like a singer:

Phrasing

For Roberts and for Drake, romantic words set at the top of a melody are opportunities for portamento: fainting fall-offs from higher notes to lower ones. Listen to her sing the word “bouquets”:

And then to Drake matching her with “grand”:

Because our ears today register such flourishes as operatic and old-fashioned, none are used in the current revival’s performances. Instead, Ms. Jones and Damon Daunno, as Curly, use country music tropes, including vertiginous pitch-bending, rhythmic stuttering and even cowboy-style yodeling to express desire, exuberance and the possibility of actual sex.

Here’s Ms. Jones, bending and swooping:

And Mr. Daunno, stuttering and yodeling:

Laurey and Curly are not, after all, singing about sharing a spot of tea. They want to get together before either of them reconsiders — or fate does.

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Fills and Frills

What is the orchestra doing in the pauses between all this melody, while the singers catch their breath? It’s providing fills and frills — or at least it used to be. These were the figures, some written as integral parts of the music and some added by the orchestrator, that answered melodic phrases and seemed to form a dialogue with them.

One that Rodgers wrote himself — you can see it in his manuscript — is the fill after each statement of the main melody, answering Hammerstein phrases like “Don’t throw bouquets at me.”

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In the movie, led by the flute, these figures sound graceful and dainty:

But in the revival’s orchestration the figure, led by a plucked violin, it sounds plain and flinty: a bare-bones figure as arid as the prairie.

Same notes, different sound.

That feeling of isolation is further enhanced by the isolation of the voice throughout the show. Whereas traditional arrangements, including Bennett’s, usually “double” the vocal melody in the orchestra, there usually aren’t enough players in this revival to do that. Which is only fitting: Loneliness is a key theme in the story. (Jud Fry’s solo is called “Lonely Room.”) And Laurey is an orphan.

None of this is to say that “Oklahoma!” can never again be performed in the style Rodgers and Hammerstein originally imagined for it. The songs are capacious enough even to return to operetta someday.

Strong enough, too: Stripping them of the trappings of gorgeousness doesn’t denature them. It reminds you that “Oklahoma!” was groundbreaking not because it was so pretty. It was groundbreaking because that prettiness was built on an understanding of characters for whom even prettiness — even love — was a luxury.

1943/2019 cast recordings courtesy of Decca Records. Video courtesy of Broadway production.

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FAQs

Why was Oklahoma musical so popular? ›

The time and the mood of the country were also contributing factors to the success of “Oklahoma!” The show hit a nostalgic chord with audiences just out of the Depression and into World War II. The show was a favorite date for servicemen on leave. In 1943, when the show opened, Oklahoma the state was only 36 years old.

What was unique about Oklahoma musical? ›

Broadway audiences and theater critics, accustomed to a standard musicals formula, were surprised by Oklahoma! It broke the rules and invented a new formula. It was a play, with music (and was billed as "a musical play"), rather than the customary show with a thin plot that marketed new songs.

How old is Oklahoma the musical? ›

Renamed Oklahoma!, the musical opened on Broadway at the St. James in 1943 and ran for almost five years, setting records with its 2,212 performances.

How did Oklahoma change musical theater? ›

If ever a Broadway musical seemed destined to fail, it was Oklahoma. Contrary to the standard practice at the time, the producers insisted on casting singers who could act, rather than actors who could sing. As a result, the show opened on Broadway without a single star in the cast.

What is the message of Oklahoma? ›

What are some important themes in the play? Oklahoma is filled with both the optimism and hope that come with the promise of Oklahoma territory becoming the newest of the United State along with the fear of the other that often arises when groups of people are forced to interact with each other.

Is Oklahoma musical kid friendly? ›

Is there an age recommendation? Due to the mature content in this production, it is recommended for children ages 12 and up. This production contains fog, loud gunshot effects, moments of darkness, and violence. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.

What is the oldest town in Oklahoma? ›

Fort Gibson is a town in Cherokee and Muskogee counties in the U.S. state of Oklahoma.
...
Fort Gibson, Oklahoma
Motto: "The Oldest Town in Oklahoma."
Location of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma
Coordinates: 35°47′41″N 95°15′11″W
CountryUnited States
19 more rows

Why was the musical Oklahoma important to American culture? ›

It reminded American people of where they came from, the life they knew, real life situations that American's had experienced, present day cultural aspects, and it resonated with people in a way that many musicals had never done so before. It was an ultimate portrayal of an American story.

Is Oklahoma a real play? ›

OKLAHOMA! is the first musical written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs' 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs and was originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

Who is SIS in Oklahoma? ›

Transgender performer Sis stars as Ado Annie Carnes who has her own love triangle to deal with in the plot of the show. Sis hails from Houston and went to college at San Francisco State University.

What happens to Jud Oklahoma? ›

Jud attacks Curly with a knife, and Curly dodges, causing Jud to fall on his own knife. Jud soon dies.

Was Oklahoma filmed in Oklahoma? ›

Shot on location in and around Sonoita, Arizona, because the real Oklahoma in 1955 was so heavily farmed and developed that few suitable areas could be found that resembled the highly-rural and undeveloped Oklahoma of the turn of the century when the musical is set.

What musical is set in the Kit Kat Club? ›

Welcome to the Kit Kat Club. Home to an intimate and electrifying new production of CABARET.

Is Gypsy a Golden Age musical? ›

The jewel of Broadway's Golden Age, Gypsy boasts an incomparable score, a brilliantly conceived book, and one of the greatest leading roles ever to grace the Broadway stage.

Why is Oklahoma considered the first modern musical? ›

It also single-handedly revived the art form, being the first stage production to seamlessly integrate themes, plot, and character into the score, and was the first musical to release an original cast recording.

What does the dream sequence in Oklahoma mean? ›

In the very center of the play, at the end of Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey's conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.

What is the little wonder in Oklahoma? ›

In “Oklahoma!” the character Will Parker brings a device called the “Little Wonder” back to Oklahoma from Kansas City. The Little Wonder allows Will to show photographs from his travels to his friends in Claremore. This stereoscope served a similar purpose for the Worley family in Oklahoma in 1909.

Why was Oklahoma so innovative? ›

Before Oklahoma, Broadway musicals were a series of big production numbers and novelty acts built around the talent of the stars. Oklahoma introduced an entirely new form. For the first time, every aspect of the play—from the lyrics to the dancing, to the staging and costumes—worked together to move the story along.

Is Book of Mormon ok for 13 year old? ›

Parental advisory: Explicit language. Everyone, regardless of age, must have their own ticket to enter the theatre. Children under the age of 16 must be accompanied by and sat next to a ticketholder who is at least 18 years old.

Is Wicked OK for a 6 year old? ›

The Wicked box office advises that the show isn't suitable for children under the age of 7, and those under 3 will not be allowed in to the theatre. There's no bad language, stark violence or overt sexual activity. But there are some scary moments – and some sad moments.

Who does Ado Annie kiss in Oklahoma? ›

Eddie Albert and Gloria Grahame in the 1955 film adaptation of Oklahoma! Shirley Jones, Gloria Grahame, and Eddie Albert in the 1955 film adaptation of Oklahoma! Gloria Grahame in the 1955 film adaptation of Oklahoma!

What is the safest city in Oklahoma? ›

Here are the 10 Safest Cities in Oklahoma for 2022
  • Elgin.
  • Hinton.
  • Hennessey.
  • Granite.
  • Piedmont.
  • Wynnewood.
  • Burns Flat.
  • Alva.

What month is the coldest in Oklahoma? ›

The cold season lasts for 3.0 months, from November 25 to February 23, with an average daily high temperature below 58°F. The coldest month of the year in Oklahoma City is January, with an average low of 31°F and high of 50°F.

What is America's oldest city? ›

St. Augustine, founded in September 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, is the longest continually inhabited European-founded city in the United States – more commonly called the "Nation's Oldest City."

How was Oklahoma different from previous musicals? ›

Oklahoma! was different from previous musicals because there were no major comic gags or novelty acts, and no special dances that were unrelated to the story. Instead, it wove together character, song and dance in pursuit of dramatic and cohesive storytelling.

What makes Oklahoma an integrated musical? ›

Integrated Musical - Storytelling is Paramount

“Oklahoma!” was the complete synthesis of music, libretto, lyrics, dancing and staging. The show had structure and a sense of dramatic build that until then had been present only in a straight non-musical play.

Who was in Oklahoma? ›

Oklahoma! (1955 film)
Oklahoma!
StarringGordon MacRae Gloria Grahame Gene Nelson Charlotte Greenwood Eddie Albert James Whitmore Rod Steiger Shirley Jones
CinematographyRobert Surtees Floyd Crosby
Edited byGeorge Boemler Gene Ruggiero
Music byRichard Rodgers
13 more rows

Why did Lexi call her play Oklahoma? ›

With a newfound confidence and a realization that she no longer had to tolerate being cast as an extra in her own life, she set out to write her play. Lexi first tells her friends and sister that she's putting on Oklahoma! so that they don't suspect she's writing a show based on their lives.

Who does Annie marry in Oklahoma? ›

Three weeks later, Laurey and Curly are married. Gertie Cummings, an annoying flirt who couldn't get her hands on Curly, has managed to also snare a husband - Ali Hakim. Will and Ado Annie are hitched as well and everyone is celebrating.

What is Lexi's play called euphoria? ›

Titled Our Life, the play examines Lexi's desires and observations up close, jumping from Rue's father's funeral, where she realizes the depth of her best friend's dependency on drugs, to happy memories of her now-broken family.

Why was Oklahoma such a groundbreaking musical? ›

Oklahoma! was different from previous musicals because there were no major comic gags or novelty acts, and no special dances that were unrelated to the story. Instead, it wove together character, song and dance in pursuit of dramatic and cohesive storytelling.

Why was Oklahoma a revolutionary musical? ›

This “integrated musical” marked a revolution in American theater. “Oklahoma!” was the complete synthesis of music, libretto, lyrics, dancing and staging. The show had structure and a sense of dramatic build that until then had been present only in a straight non-musical play.

Why is Oklahoma considered the first modern musical? ›

It also single-handedly revived the art form, being the first stage production to seamlessly integrate themes, plot, and character into the score, and was the first musical to release an original cast recording.

What was the musical Oklahoma based on? ›

OKLAHOMA! is the first musical written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs' 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs and was originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

What is the little wonder in Oklahoma? ›

In “Oklahoma!” the character Will Parker brings a device called the “Little Wonder” back to Oklahoma from Kansas City. The Little Wonder allows Will to show photographs from his travels to his friends in Claremore. This stereoscope served a similar purpose for the Worley family in Oklahoma in 1909.

What happens to Jud Oklahoma? ›

Jud attacks Curly with a knife, and Curly dodges, causing Jud to fall on his own knife. Jud soon dies.

Is Oklahoma the musical dark? ›

It's new and fresh, dark and haunting, serious and disturbing, funny and moving, but surprisingly, not a single lyric or word of dialogue has been changed. This Oklahoma! is re-staged to speak to modern audiences, but the story is the same.

What happens to Jud Fry? ›

Jud then gets drunk, comes back to confront Curly, gets into a fight and falls on his own knife and dies. And to make it even more horrific, the townspeople quickly form a kangaroo court and decide promptly that Curly isn't to blame for Jud's death.

Does curly shoot Jud in Oklahoma? ›

In the dream ballet, Laurey prepares for her wedding, but is shocked to see that the man she's marrying is Jud. Curly enters and tries shooting at Jud who persists toward him, immune to the bullets. Jud then grabs Curly by the throat.

Is Gypsy a Golden Age musical? ›

The jewel of Broadway's Golden Age, Gypsy boasts an incomparable score, a brilliantly conceived book, and one of the greatest leading roles ever to grace the Broadway stage.

What was the first great American musical? ›

This was an advertisement poster for the 1866 production of "The Black Crook", which many consider to be the first modern musical. The modern American musical is usually associated with the “triple threat”, singing, dancing and acting.

Why was Oklahoma so innovative? ›

Before Oklahoma, Broadway musicals were a series of big production numbers and novelty acts built around the talent of the stars. Oklahoma introduced an entirely new form. For the first time, every aspect of the play—from the lyrics to the dancing, to the staging and costumes—worked together to move the story along.

Who wrote The Sound of Music? ›

The Sound of Music

What does the dream sequence in Oklahoma mean? ›

In the very center of the play, at the end of Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey's conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.

Did Shirley Jones do her own singing in Oklahoma? ›

Jones sang the songs "Oklahoma!" and "People Will Say We're In Love" from the musical Oklahoma!.

Who is SIS in Oklahoma? ›

Transgender performer Sis stars as Ado Annie Carnes who has her own love triangle to deal with in the plot of the show. Sis hails from Houston and went to college at San Francisco State University.

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