Surviving in the States: Audience Rejection on the Road with Oklahoma!

When the original Broadway production opened in 1943, the musical’s celebration of small-town home-spun American spirit was a lightning rod of pleasure for a country grappling from the tolls of World War II. New York Times critic Lewis Nichols wrote at the time that Oklahoma! was “a truly delightful musical… full of fresh and infectious gayety… simple and warm.” The music, story, and dance were so intertwined that Lewis could not decide whether to call it “a musical play or a folk operetta,” but this seamless connection of plot and song proved to be the foundation of most of what we now call the American Musical. The show’s plot focuses on a small community in a territory soon to become a state. The cowboy, Curly, wants to ask Laurey to the Box Social, but Laurey’s farmhand, Jud, gets in the way. A comedic subplot involving a traveling salesman, another cowboy, and a girl who “cain’t say no” also plays out until both cowboys get the girl and the farmhand and salesman get their due. Dramatic main plot, comedic subplot, plenty of music and dance that includes an Agnes de Mille dream ballet—and in the end everyone celebrates with that titular song of land and identity being married as one: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.”

Director Daniel Fish cracked open this beloved musical and dug into its virtues with a vengeance. He flipped its perceived narrative into a young woman’s unfair and forced choice between a cocky man child and an emotionally underdeveloped outsider. Ado Annie’s inability to “say no” is no longer rooted in her scattered desires; instead it is a celebration of her large appetite. Curly’s cruelness and Jud’s loneliness frame an impossible and unfair decision for Laurey to make, so that the dream ballet is no longer a dance with her two suitors but a battle against the societal demands Laurey is trapped within. Through her gaze we see the men’s wooing as subtle cover for determined ownership, damaged emotional needs, and base sexual desire. Ultimately everyone in this small community must act in accordance to whatever helps them survive, no matter the cost.

Survival became a huge thematic element of our production. As that need to survive permeated throughout the songs and libretto, the underbelly of these characters’ desires and fears emerged front and center. Every night we were fighting for these characters’ need to survive their given circumstances, and in tandem we as a company were fighting to survive through our audience’s disapproval and animosity.

We were determined to present Oklahoma! in a way that would invite audiences to watch this story about community in early twentieth century America and find reflections of communities in the United States today.

What exactly caused this tension, this disapproval of the conversation we were trying to engage in? Was it our cast, featuring a diverse group of individuals whose bodies would not normally be allowed to inhabit these classic characters because of race and gender identity? Or because the band was a seven-piece bluegrass getup, replacing orchestral strings with banjo twangs? Was it our set being static and largely made of plywood, or the costumes being modern? The live video feeds that gave the audience a close-up, cinematic encounter with certain characters? Or the expressionistic lighting, with the stage giving way to large swaths of bold colors to underline characters’ green lust or red rage?

I don’t have an answer, and even if I took a poll I doubt a consensus would prevail, but most of my cast members and I overwhelmingly felt that these audience members did not want to engage in the conversation. Or rather many in our audience seemed ready for a different conversation than the one we had rehearsed, even though were performing the exact text and music they had anticipated. This distinction acknowledges that audiences are expecting two things when they engage with theatre. They want the words and, in this case, the music, but they also expect the performance—the story being written in the moment right in front of them—to tell a story. It’s not just about seeing a show; it’s about what production of that show you saw. How did the production enhance or change or detract from the show? This is another way of defining what I earlier referred to as “the conversation”: the thing that is happening in that moment between audience and artist. So audiences specifically did not approve of the choices we were making. they did not appreciate the nuance we were finding, and they did not desire to peek under the veneer of a beloved American musical and see what was underneath all that shine and polish.

We were determined to present Oklahoma! in a way that would invite audiences to watch this story about community in early twentieth century America and find reflections of communities in the United States today. In fact, the most surprising thing about this production might have been that, despite not changing any of the text of Oklahoma!, a libretto written in the 1940s, our show felt eerily relevant to the state of our country today. It isn’t difficult to equate a cowboy mentality of justice, a fierce sense of national identity, and the need to protect community from outsiders, to living in America in 2023.

I did not apologize for the choices we made on stage, and I did not make the conversation easier to digest for the audience.

At the beginning of this essay, I brought up the idea of theatre as a conversation between performers and audience and the importance of the model of the national tour in widening who can be a part of the conversation. But many of the people in this conversation were uninterested in participating and rejected the performance and performers fully. On an audience review site that aggregates from all the different cities we stopped in, we currently have 436 reviews and a 1.3 average star rating out of 5.

I welcome any of those 436 audience reviewers to respond, but I’ve never believed that the goal of theatre was harmony and contentment. Does it feel amazing to finish a show and have an entire audience stand and applaud and throw bouquets? I’ve never had the flower part, but yes that sounds great for my ego. But what is actually accomplished when an entire audience unilaterally agrees and responds in approving unison? Didn’t the large swaths of resistance in our audiences every night actually validate the fact something was truly transpiring in our theatre, that there was a real conversation happening with opposing views present? It was almost more akin to a town hall or school board meeting than a night at the theatre.

I decided to metabolize that resistance into fuel to keep going. I became more intent on remaining steadfast: I did not soften the edges of my performance, I did not apologize for the choices we made on stage, and I did not make the conversation easier to digest for the audience.