Let Us Now Talk Very Seriously About Oklahoma! -The Toast

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Oklahoma-DVDcoverThe real question posed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is this:

Would Ado Annie and Laurey’s problems be solved if they just set themselves up as spinsters in a romantic friendship on Laurey’s farm and dumped Jud, Curly, Will and Ali on a wagon bound for California? (All Most of the problems!)

I kid. Sort of.

Golden-age musical theater doesn’t have the most sterling of reputations for complex and thought-provoking plots. Whether this reputation is deserved is a bigger question than I intend to answer here, to be honest, but Oklahoma! is certainly not the counterexample most people would pick when arguing about it. A musical that centers on which cowboy will marry which farmer(‘s daughter) is not exactly a high-stakes one, especially when its music has become shorthand for indicating a certain kind of nerdy musical theater enthusiast. It is a fun but shallow stream in which to play.

Revisiting the show, however, it struck me that the subplot was a very light take on subjects that would have been dangerous socially had they been treated with any weight.

(As for the A-plot, well, all I have to say is that if you are choosing between a charismatic jerk and an actively dangerous stalker, maybe the right choice is NONE OF THE ABOVE, Laurey. Look, Aunt Eller has no kids and no husband in evidence, so you’re gonna inherit that farm either way. Surely you can just hire a bodyguard. Then again, when the jerk looks like Hugh Jackman, I suppose I can’t judge too hard.)

(Aunt Eller is certainly having a beautiful morning.)

For those of you not intimately up on your early Rodgers and Hammerstein, the main subplot of Oklahoma! has to do with Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, and her love triangle. (Clearly, Ado Annie is waiting to be cast as the heroine of the steampunk, YA reboot of this story.) On the one hand, she has Will Parker, a cowboy who is in love with her, but who is textually not the brightest light in the harbor; on the other, there is Ali Hakim, who is an unfortunate sign of things to come re: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s handling of characters of color (see also South Pacific, The King and I). While it’s not Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s bad, Hakim is pretty intensely Othered.* The play deals with race about as well as you’d expect for a mainstream commercially successful show from 1943 (not great), which means the audience is never in any real doubt about which suitor Annie is going to end up with. Will may be dumber than a bag of hammers, but he’s white.

A side note: In case you think I am exaggerating the level of Will’s mental prowess, Ado Annie’s father tells Will he needs 50 dollars in order to have permission to marry Annie. (Which is gross, though slightly less gross if you imagine Annie’s father just picked something at random he was pretty sure Will could never achieve.) Will, upon winning 50 dollars in Kansas City, promptly spends it all on gifts, one of which is actually a deadly weapon which he plans to give his prospective father-in-law because he’s unaware of its properties. Later, Hakim basically hands Will 50 dollars to avoid a shotgun wedding to Annie. Will immediately bids all 50 dollars on Annie’s picnic basket, meaning Hakim has to spend another 51 bucks help out this loon by outbidding him.

What’s really interesting about Ado Annie is that she insists she loves both Will and Ali, much to Laurey’s bemusement. Depending on the director and the actress, this declaration can go one of two ways. You can take it for what it is – to wit, Annie is in love with two people at once, and it’s her bad luck that she inhabits a time and place where polyamory is not an option. (The musical Paint Your Wagon suggests she should have just moved several hundred miles west a few decades earlier.) Alternately, you can argue that Annie just enjoys sexual attention, and has been given no vocabulary to talk about it separated from romantic love and marriage. This reading is supported by her (false) assumption that Hakim’s proposition of a night in a hotel is a de facto proposal; wanting sex and wanting marriage are equated.

Given that her subplot is a comic one, the audience is clearly meant to find Annie’s situation inherently ridiculous. Comedy is easier to achieve when treating Annie’s double love as sincere but fundamentally naive within the framework of the show. Annie in this reading is simply an indecisive flirt who is distracted by whichever of her options is in front of her. The latter reading, that it is sexual attention itself which she wants most, is a more dangerous tactic for a modern production, because it draws its comedy not from the character so much as from the fact that a female libido exists at all. Annie is comedic because she has the desire for sexual aggression without the knowledge to make it dangerous. This interpretation has a lot of historical precedent – after all, a time-honored way to deal with something scary is making it ridiculous, and female sexual desire, as we all know, is terrifying – but it will be harder for a modern production to pull off without complication.

The song “I Cain’t Say No” is the part of Ado Annie’s subplot that’s probably best known and illustrates the different ways a production can handle her plot. In a different context, the song could be a disturbing gloss on her feeling that, when faced with male desire, she has no choice but to yield. But in this case, the upbeat music, Annie’s character and, most tellingly, the lyrics all point another direction – that the conflict isn’t so much between Annie’s desires and those of her beaux, but between what she wants and what a good girl is supposed to have. After all, “she’s known what’s right and wrong since [she] was ten.”

The difference a performer can make to the character is obvious when you start to compare them. Vicki Simon’s performance in the 1998 London production (the one starring Jackman, directed by Trevor Nunn) keeps things light, though Simon certainly incorporates a very frank physicality, as in 2:25-2:30 of the video, not to mention all the leaning over and arching her back throughout.

(Though the production never follows through on the choice, tell me she is not also flirting with Laurey in this scene. I dare you.)

Simon’s Ado Annie is mostly sweet, and while she’s frankly physical, she really does believe the best of people at the same time. Annie comes off as impulsive and young, especially in this number. She’s having fun, and the consequences seem remote.

The 1955 film complicates Ado Annie through its casting. Annie is played by Gloria Grahame – the Gloria Grahame that Turner Classic Movies describes as “A femme fatale with extraordinary carnal allure.” The Gloria Grahame you might remember as hopelessly trying to distract Jimmy Stewart from Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life.

(Yeah, that one. Photo via Rotten Tomatoes.)

The film buttons Grahame up tight: literally in costumes, as well as in direction and camera framing. You see strikingly little of her body during the song. But the casting isn’t a coincidence either. The question “How can I be what I ain’t?” takes on a new twist in Grahame’s version, even with a tamer second verse for Hollywood. And unlike Simon, Grahame projects actual worry about her “terrible fix.” When she seems to enjoy herself, she catches herself and looks contrite almost immediately.

Oklahoma! deals with Ado Annie’s sexuality by making it a joke or a problem. She can’t say she wants sexual attention for herself, of course, but what a woman can do is couch it in terms of “not disappointing” a man paying her such attention. She defends her actions by couching it in terms of the Golden Rule – she says she’ll “do fer him what he would do fer me.” The reframing is necessary in order to preserve Annie’s status as a fundamentally moral character who is redeemable by the end of the show. This is not to downplay that the song is actually funny – in the hands of a good actress, including the two above, it absolutely is. But unlike Laurey, who can’t decide what she wants, Ado Annie knows – she just has to talk around it and navigate the limited options for securing it. In show that constantly occupied with whether characters are in or out of sync with the community, the only way for Annie to get what she wants without becoming an outcast is to rein in her appetites.

Interestingly, the problems with Hakim and Will are both economic. Hakim exists outside the community, both because of his race and because he’s a transient peddler, but he does have capital. Will has problems holding on to money, underlining the show’s premise of cowboys as undependable wanderers in contrast to more-reliable (if boring) farmers – though it’s worth noting that the farmers are all either minor characters or women. Ado Annie’s father is perfectly willing to sell sexual access to his daughter – but it can’t be temporary, and it can’t be taken for free, as seen in both his threatening Hakim with a shotgun wedding and setting the $50 price before he’ll consent to an engagement with Will. (In Hakim’s song, “It’s A Scandal! It’s An Outrage,” he observes: “If you make one mistake when the moon is bright/Then they tie you to a contract so you make it every night.”)

Both suitors want Ado Annie on a physical level. Hakim and Annie have clearly been physically involved – not enough to ruin her, but more than would please her father or her fiance. Even the more stolid Will goes to a burlesque show in Kansas city. Annie’s desire remains entirely irrelevant to the plot, if not the comedy; the marriage can’t take place until the suitor with monetary capital (Hakim) transfers it to the suitor with social capital (Will, who is exa part of the community in a way his rival can never be).

But this still leaves the show in a sticky place. Though the danger of loving two people at once is removed when Hakim more or less throws Will at Annie and runs, Annie’s desire is still unruly. In Will and Annie’s Act II duet, “All ‘er Nuthin'” (Hammerstein, I love you, but transcribed dialects, please stop), Will directly asks whether she’ll be monogamous, claiming marriage involves renouncing “lotsa other things/A gentleman never mentions.”

They eventually come to something of an “I will if you will” arrangement, which I can’t think is the soundest basis for long-term monogamy, but you do you, crazy kids. Then again, Will feels the need to specify that his future children look like him, which suggests some other trust issues. This song is much less overtly sexual than Cole Porter’s take on more or less the same premise, “Always True To You In My Fashion,” which turns up in Kiss Me, Kate about five years later – probably because Cole Porter was Cole Porter – but Ado Annie is still allowed to be more experienced as a secondary character than a character like Laurey is allowed to be as the lead.

Though it’s usually played for ongoing comic effect, the song’s second half makes it more interesting. Ado Annie bluntly points out “With you it’s all er nuthin’./All fer you and nuthin’ fer me!” Nor can the audience really blame her for suspecting she’s getting the raw end of this deal. What makes Annie unusual isn’t that there’s a double standard, of course – it’s that she calls it out, and refuses to submit (at least for now) to marriage on terms other than equal ones. While I doubt Oklahoma! wants us to believe Annie and Will end up in an open marriage, Annie refuses to pretend monogamy isn’t for both of them, or that she’s going to tolerate a breach of a contract she was forced into accepting in the first place.

Ado Annie is basically recycled in Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next show, though Carrie comes with one large, notable difference. Her fiance, Mr. Snow, assumes she’s fooling around on him because he’s an uptight idiot, not because she actually is. Carrie, unlike Annie, is perfectly willing to buy into a conventional, exclusive marriage with Mr. Snow. (God knows why; Mr. Snow is pretty awful.) Carrie, though, probably still gives us a glimpse of Annie’s future: a ton of kids and a husband who gets more and more staunchly conservative without getting any smarter.

By then, Curley is probably out cheating on Laurey as his midlife crisis anyway, so she and Annie should have lots of time to catch up. Unlike Laurey, though, Ado Annie might be inclined to get some of her own back if Will violates the rules he himself laid down. Laurey’s solution, as described in her song “Many A New Day,” is renounce men when one of them proves disappointing. Annie’s solution, based on past experience, will be to just grab a new one who happens to be handy.

That is, assuming they don’t all have to pick up and move to California when the Dust Bowl hits, about 25 years after the play ends. Maybe Annie will get her second chance as that polyamorous California relationship after all.

*The Trevor Nunn revival dealt with this by suggesting Hakim performing Persian-ness as part of his salesmanship, and underlays his dialogue with a New York accent, at least making him semi-complicit in his place at the fringes of the community.


Further Reading/Viewing:

Oklahoma!: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical, Oscar Hammerstein II (Amazon | Goodreads)

The 1955 film (Amazon | iTunes)

The filmed 1998 London production (Amazon | iTunes)

Amy Laburda lives in New York City. She has disappointed many friends by breaking the news that dramaturgy does not involve summoning the ghost of William Shakespeare via incantation.

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