Can landmark musical Oklahoma! be effectively modernised without losing its original charm? What s On Stage reporter Richard Forrest takes a look inside Trevor Nunn s ambitious revival at the National Theatre....

One hesitates to use the word “landmark” in connection with a stage production, so often is it bandied about Broadway and the West End these days. However, a half century after it first premiered, there is one piece of theatre to which the term can rightly be applied: Rodgers and Hammerstein s Oklahoma!.

In 1943, this show picked up the genre and gave it a good shaking down, with its seamless fusion of book, lyrics and music, innovative “dream ballet” sequence, and portrayal of a violent killing. It created a blueprint for musical theatre that lasted until the end of the 1960s, and brought us now revered songs such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin”, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, and the rousing “Oklahoma”. In the process, Oklahoma!, the musical, even transferred some of its lyrics into the vernacular: the archetypal “girl who can t say no” for instance, was the show s own flirtatious, freewheeling character, Ado Annie.

The question is, though, can Oklahoma! hold its own against more modern fare like Rent and Chicago, currently filling auditoria in the West End? After all, this tale of the American West would seem to be more about the 1890s than the 1990s.

RNT director Trevor Nunn (whose previous successes include Les Miserables, Cats and Starlight Express) says his purpose in presenting the show, is to recapture the revolution that was Oklahoma!. Obviously, the time was ripe for a spot of re-invention, because his own vision of the musical is for a tougher and more realistic show than has been previously staged.

In order to imbue the show with this “new realism”, Nunn has gone back to the source of Oklahoma!, a play written by midwesterner Lynn Riggs during the Depression years, called Green Grow The Lilacs.

Nunn calls Riggs tale “touching and truthful”, although the play has been described elsewhere as “earthy” and “folksy”. Whatever the adjective, Lilacs was a short-lived phenomenon when it reached Broadway in the 1930s, lasting a mere 64 performances. In fact, so short-lived was it that Rodgers and Hammerstein s early attempts to musicalise the play were met with scepticism.

The story involves a love triangle that forms between a cowpoke named Curly, a winsome farm girl called Laurey, and a menacing farmhand named Judd Fry. The two males end up fighting to the death for the young lady s affections, and the chance to take her to the “box social”. However, the subtext of the play was more political, featuring a stand-off between the cattlemen and farmers.

Lilacs depicts the pioneers, who had to seize their land from the Indians, as having a tough time at the turn of the century. Life was certainly nothing like the celluloid version of Oklahoma! that most of us remember, and Nunn claims to have seen “countless times”: rosy-cheeked, gingham-clad womenfolk and robust cowboys sashaying across a Technicolor backdrop.

As well as interpolating some of the dialogue from Lilacs into Hammerstein s book, Nunn has also had the show s choreography extensively reworked. To this end, respected Broadway talent Susan Stroman has been drafted in. Stroman won an Olivier award for her work on the Gershwin romp Crazy For You in the early ‘90s, and recently picked up a Tony for the Hal Prince production of Show Boat.

It s the first time the almost draconian Rodgers and Hammerstein organisation have allowed the original Agnes De Mille choreography to be tinkered with, and Stroman has made two major changes: the famous dream ballet is no longer acted out by stand-ins for Curly and Laurey (which means the lead roles need to have excellent dancing skills); and the number “Many a New Day” omits the womenfolk prancing on their pointes while singing about their men.

The cast is mostly young, and unknown: Hugh Jackman is Curly, Josefina Gabrielle is Laurey, and Shuler Hensley is Judd. The only established “name” is Maureen Lipman, who is playing the pivotal character of Laurey s Aunt Eller. This will be the first musical Lipman has acted in since 1987.

Nunn quite rightly holds Oklahoma! in the highest regard, believing it to be 'one of the signpost works of Twentieth Century theatre”. Whether or not the performers on the Olivier stage have taken the musical to a new destination, will be there for audiences to see from 16 July 1998.