Years ago, as a tween, I read a quote from some theater critic that proclaimed that the quality of a stage musical was inversely proportional to how many times the chorus shouted “Hooray”. I’d barely seen any musicals then, but I sort of viscerally understood what he meant and the kind of musicals he was talking about. Oklahoma, for instance.
Now, if you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I’m not all that keen on musicals as a rule; so this is definitely a case of “it’s not them, it’s me.” I’m actually okay with some later works, like Les Misérables and Passing Strange and Chicago and Hamilton – basically, anything where there’s a story of some complexity or the music is just way innovative. It’s more the hoarier classics that leave me a little cold; the plots are a little hokey and over-simplified and formulaic, and that always loses me. And even here, I don’t necessarily hate them – there’s often a few songs that I end up liking despite myself, or if there’s a standout performance or production. (I’m still dining out on the fact that I saw the production of Carousel in which Audra McDonald made her theater debut.)
Interestingly, some of the things about Carousel that disappointed me were true of Oklahoma as well – they’re both set in a quaint, site-specific, good-olde-days small town (Maine in Carousel, and a small town in the Oklahoma territory), with twee old-fashionedy trappings (the big social event in Carousel is a community clambake, and in Oklahoma it is a community box social). There’s a main storyline with some drama to it, and a side story played for comedy – one which usually gives a solo to a kooky female best friend of the romantic lead. The female romantic lead runs the risk of some kind of outcome which would lead to her becoming a “fallen woman”, partially shunned by society, but Love Conquers All and saves her at the end of the day, and the whole chorus turns out to serenade the romantic leads with a stirring song at the end as they either fall into each others’ arms or ride off into the sunset. (This song may or may not involve people shouting “Hooray”.)
So I was already disinclined to not be all that taken with the film of Oklahoma! as it is very, very faithful to the stage version. Two songs have been cut, and the cast is performing at actual locations instead of on a painted stage set (with the exception of one bit on a soundstage, which I’ll get to in a minute); but otherwise it’s what you’d see if you went to see it live – Oklahoma cowboy Curley (Gordon MacRae) wants to take pretty Laurie (Shirley Jones) to the box social that night, but he waited too long to ask her so she’s going with her family’s sullen hired hand Jud (Rod Steiger) to make Curley jealous. Except Curley and Laurie really are sweet on each other, and Jud starts to get really creepy and possessive in the hours leading up to the social, and Laurie realizes she needs to extricate herself from his grasp somehow.
However, the film’s faithfulness to the musical means it also includes the musical’s “Dream Ballet” – an extended dance sequence, prompted by a dream Laurie has as she ponders her predicament. The film uses the original stage show choreography by Agnes de Mille, and I was riveted. Arguably watching this on film was even better than seeing it live – the film could get close enough to show the expressions on the dancer’s faces, and there are moments in the Dream Ballet where their expressions reinforce the dancer’s movement; there’s a sequence where Dream Laurie sees herself trapped in a saloon with Dream Jud, as a whole flock of saloon hall girls step their way through the can-can like automatons. Their movements are robotic enough; but the dead and frozen looks on their faces just made that all the more chilling.
And yet, that sequence made me realize my biggest complaint with the film of Oklahoma – the fact that it was a film.
Earlier this year, the film critic Lindsay Ellis released a fascinating video doing a deep dive into the film adaptation of Cats and why it fared as poorly as it did. She calls out some of the more obvious flaws (inconsistent visual effects, some really weird casting), but then Ellis suggested that one of the biggest flaws of the film was in trying to make it be a film in the first place. The musical is a highly-fantastical, stagey fantasy that needs the non-reality world of a stage to work. Trying to set it in “the real world” just doesn’t fit.
To be fair, this is a challenge that film adaptations of a lot of musicals face; and they rise to that challenge in a variety of ways, to a variety of degrees of success. Some “film adaptations” simply film the stage show, using the occasional closeup of an actor’s face here and there; this is what Hamilton and Passing Strange did with their film adaptations. But it is clear that you’re watching a stage show nevertheless, and that sort of “reality but not” feel still carries over. At the other end of the spectrum, we have what director Tom Hooper tried to do with Les Misérables and Cats, where he tried to make the films as realistic as possible – none of the addresses-to-the-audience you find in musicals, gritty settings, unpolished singing. You can get away with that kind of approach to Les Misérables, but for Cats….it’s not that great an idea. A lot of other musical-movie adaptations fall somewhere in the middle; sometimes with a stagey element as a dream sequence, sometimes as a hallucination; whether they pull it off depends both on how well they sell the dream sequence, or on the “stageyness” of the original.
With Oklahoma, the Dream Ballet left me realizing that the rest of the show should have been similarly set on a stage. It all looks pretty enough, and the performances are all fine (my one complaint is with Gloria Grahame as “Ado Annie”, who had a distracting tendency to sing with her mouth closed very small – I was wondering if her dialogue and singing were dubbed). But the world of the play is “fake” enough that it needs the fake world of the theater to support it, and bringing it into the real world doesn’t quite fit.
In its defense, they don’t shout “Hooray” at all (although, they do shout “yeeow-a-yip-i-o-ee ay” at one point, which isn’t that much of an improvement).