Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On OKLAHOMA! [the musical]

As an actor, it’s important that I keep reading screenplays and plays. Screenplays are a little easier to read without seeking them out, I read new ones each time I audition for a project. I have to seek out plays a little more, but I’m always happy I did.

Recently, I reread the classic musical Oklahoma! and it blew my mind. It was completely different than I remembered from seeing productions before, or even when I worked on scenes in Musical Scene Study class back in my conservatory days. It’s not that the productions I saw were bad, or that I misunderstood it when I worked on the scenes myself… It just wasn’t fully understood. But this time, so much more was clear.

Every time I had seen the show before, it was all presented so simply. Curly the cowhand and Laurey should be together and Jud the hired hand is clearly gross and not worthy of Laurey, he’s the villain. We love Laurey because she accepts Jud’s invitation to the box social, and doesn’t go with Curly [even though she wants to] because that means that she is a good girl who doesn’t go back on her word. It’s all so very nice. But there always seemed to be something missing from the experience for me. It also makes the entire show hinge upon whether or not Laurey is polite – will she break her word and go to the social with Curly?

That’s it?!

As soon as I began reading Oklahoma! this time, everything felt much more urgent. And questions popped up immediately. What if Curly is arrogantly toying with Laurey about asking her to the social instead of being teasingly cute? And then she says yes to Jud when he asks her… The audience doesn’t get to see that scene, but I always assumed she says yes to Jud because Curly has said (teasingly or toyingly) that he won’t ask her. Reading it this time, I realized that if she didn’t want to go with Jud she easily could’ve made an excuse. Everyone in town would have fully understood and would not have thought any less of her. It’s Jud. Ew.

Meanwhile, we’ve met Will and Ado Annie who have reminded us that we’re all so wonderfully alive, with a world of feelings inside of us that need to be expressed physically. I won’t digress into an argument about what that sexuality represents in the show, but it’s clear that it’s about change. People are allowing themselves to physically express their desires – and that change feels dangerous. There’s a scene between Laurey and Ado Annie where Ado Annie explains how when her motor gets running, she “Can’t Say No.” She asks Laurey for recognition and Laurey says she has no idea what Ado Annie is talking about, but… what if she does? What if Laurey is vexed by this very issue right now?

And then, for me, all hell broke loose.

Yes, Laurey loves Curly. Laurey loves Curly the way love is written about – butterflies, the stars and the moon – and that love is real. But what if Jud makes her feel alive inside; makes her feel like a grown woman? Sexually? And what if, as overwhelming and scary and new that feeling is to her – she loves it? What if it excites her just as much as her feelings for Curly do…?

All of a sudden Jud feels like he is quite misunderstood. And Laurey really needs those smelling salts to tell her what the heck she should do. Then the show becomes about this girl becoming a woman dealing with a very difficult choice about how she’s going to live her life.

All of that happens before we even get to the first real scene with Jud! Up till then all we’ve had is a couple of lines from him. [Shoutout to R & H for letting everyone else have their say about Jud before he really even arrives. My man Jud is a man of mystery.] Before this reading of the show, I felt the scenes between Jud and Curly in the Smoke House where Jud lives were meant to be funny, and show how dumb Jud is. But this time, when I read the scene description I was taken aback. Jud is the hired hand and lives in the old smokehouse, yet he decides to put tools on the walls and have barrels of nails and screws in his room. I never realized he chooses that as decoration. He works on a farm; we know they have a toolshed because this is the smokehouse. [For all y’all whose families didn’t work on farms, smokehouses are for smoking meat and not where you keep your non meat-smoking tools. Especially if you no longer smoke meat and have your hired hand live there.] Jud just loves them so much that he wants them as decoration. It’s a small detail, but it’s enough to let the audience know Jud loves working with his hands. Really loves it.

In the scenes in the Smoke House, I never fully understood how dirty and manipulative Curly was being while calling it “playing” with Jud. All the joking about how if Jud was dead people would finally admit to being Jud’s friend, but only when he’s dead. Curly even has the audacity to fully suggest that Jud kill himself. WHAAAAT?! Yes, he plays as if he’s joking and sings a funny song about it but… When you think of Jud as someone that Laurey might actually like a lot, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for Curly to kinda feel like Jud being dead would be a real solution to all his problems. As my Grandma would say when a bull tried to mate with a sow, “That ain’t right!”

All Poor Jud can do is wallow in sadness and sing a song about how misunderstood and lonely he is. And it is heartbreaking.

Even with all these thoughts, I wasn’t completely sold on thinking of the show in this way until that last scene with Laurey and Jud, where he asks her why she won’t ever let herself be alone with him. Jud gives a monologue that’s as full of love as any leading man ever has. He shows a real love for Laurey that’s an astonishing betrayal of how soulful he is. He proves he’s a complicated man that’s capable of a beautiful kind of love that’s just like the love Laurey thinks she feels for Curly. And that scares Laurey terribly because it’s not simple or easy to understand. Why would it scare her so if she didn’t feel similarly about him…?

All of a sudden I truly understood why this show is a classic. It’s dirty. It’s gritty. It’s raw. Most of all, though – it’s real. And I never understood that before.