September 07, 2023


Rodgers & Hammerstein: Oklahoma! Nathaniel Hackmann, Sierra Boggess, Rodney Earl Clarke, Jamie Parker, Louise Dearman, Sandra Marvin, Nadim Naaman; “Oklahoma!” Ensemble and Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $43.99 (2 SACDs).

     Just about nobody outside students of theatrical history pays much attention nowadays to Lynn Riggs’ 1930 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, but just about anybody with an interest in modern musicals is highly familiar with what Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II did with that play by transforming it into Oklahoma! Yet for all the extreme familiarity of the musical numbers – Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’; The Surrey with the Fringe on Top; Ev’rythin’s Up to Date in Kansas City; People Will Say We’re in Love; and of course the title song – very, very few people have ever had a chance to hear the entirety of the work’s score in the form in which its creators envisioned it.

     Now, thanks to a splendid two-SACD Chandos release featuring some wonderful singing and first-rate instrumental playing, there is finally a way for everyone to hear just how delightful – and how groundbreaking – the original version of Oklahoma! really was.

     What are now called “Broadway musicals” have a long and complex history that draws partly on operetta, partly on vaudeville, partly on “sung plays” along the lines of The Threepenny Opera – a 1928 adaptation of the then-200-year-old The Beggar’s Opera. But modern Broadway musicals, at least those that flourished through the 20th century, can be traced primarily to two antecedents: Show Boat (1927) and, 16 years later, Oklahoma! What Rodgers (music) and Hammerstein (book and lyrics) did in Oklahoma! was to shape characters with some depth whose songs – often punctuated by dialogue in the style of operatic melodrama – reflected their personalities and advanced the story at the same time. The result was a period piece (set in 1906, the year before Oklahoma became a U.S. state) whose underlying, age-old themes of love and conflict have withstood many, many changes in music and staging, not to mention a modern lack of awareness of one of the fundamental topics of the work – the longstanding conflict between farmers and ranchers.

     There is also a third creative force behind Oklahoma! – and it is his crucial contributions that have gotten short shrift in the musical’s innumerable revivals. He is Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), who orchestrated Rodgers’ music in ways that are so apt and so perfectly fitted to the material that they sound inevitable. And it is in the close attention that John Wilson and the singers and instrumentalists he leads pay to Bennett’s orchestrations that this recording distinguishes itself on a strictly musical basis. Wilson uses the exact instrumentation that Bennett called for: 16 strings; oboe, oboe d’amore, cor anglais and bass oboe; and drums and a guitar that actually date to the 1940s. The result is historically informed sound that is every bit as valuable for Oklahoma! as for the much older, classical music to whose authentic performances the term “historically informed” is generally applied.

     Furthermore, this release includes all the music of Oklahoma! – not only the famed highlights but also lesser-known, not-always-performed numbers. It is, believe it or not, the world première recording of the complete show. And the singers, unencumbered by the need to act and dance on stage while delivering their notes, all do an excellent job of acting with their voices: the characters’ emotions, from the superficial to the serious, are communicated precisely and with a full understanding of the musical’s human drama (which climaxes with a death and a court hearing, as listeners familiar only with the famous songs may not even be aware). It is true that the story is not particularly nuanced – neither was Green Grow the Lilacs – but it has more depth than many other musicals of its time and before; and many that came after, for that matter. Wilson and this ensemble cast make it clear that Oklahoma! lives and breathes in the 21st century as it did in the 20th: it is certainly no museum piece (as even the best operettas have generally become), and it actually grows in stature when heard as a complete work that runs 100 minutes without dialogue. There is a lot of music here, and Wilson and the other performers clearly understand and care about all of it – which makes listeners understand and care about it as well, to a greater extent than many who think they already know Oklahoma! will believe possible. This show was a genuinely important one, but it is important to remember that it is also a wonderfully tuneful entertainment – one that sounds even better when experienced as Rodgers, Hammerstein and Bennett intended. Even without the visuals, this is a performance that makes it possible to see Oklahoma! in the mind’s eye with exceptional clarity and come away from it with a justifiable sense of amazement at how good the music is.

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