#16 - OK
Why Oklahoma made me again want more for the musical in the UK
Last week I saw Daniel Fish’s acclaimed production of Oklahoma at the Young Vic and it was extraordinary. The show was given the same muscular, experimental, thoughtful production as perhaps Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare. It was a bold reimagining but it also felt like everyone involved truly revered the source material and in many ways it was the most alive and caring revival I have seen of a musical at any point in my life.
The last time I saw Oklahoma before this was on a national tour years ago. Seeing it then felt like visiting a museum. Outdated choreography, affected sentimental acting and sugary visuals that made it feel like a harmless love triangle in a quirky town.
I have always been told that a revival has a responsibility to three time periods, the time it is written, the time it is about, and the time it is presented. But so often musical revivals exist in one time period only. They rarely look to interrogate the moment of their presentation and instead harken back to a sort of bygone era that feels distant and separate from our existence.
By using modern theatrical techniques, Fish implicates the audience and brings to the surface the violence, dissatisfaction and tarnished romance a the core of the piece. He also prods and pokes at the supposed integrity of the American dream and looks at the gaping wound inside the idea that everyone should get to be whatever they want.
But most of all his production is so unbelievably cool. It has a Brooklyn vibe that feels like a clear and skilful cross-pollination of gig, live art, dance theatre, independent film and the great American play. It somehow manages to respect the original text and music ever more by shining it through a modern theatrical lens. It is mature, high minded, entertaining and dazzling.
And it got me wondering. Why do we do we so rarely make work like this here? Why whenever this sort of work is seen in the UK is it imported? Musicals are rarely allowed to be like that in this country. Rarely allowed to be so uncompromising, as intelligent, as shocking or as unpleasant.
We tell ourselves that we lead the world in creating bold, vivid, imaginative theatre but when it comes to musicals we usually import that vibe. We are scared of making it ourselves. And I can only think it is because we don’t trust the form as much as the Americans do. Or that we want something already lauded. We will gladly import an existing hit that feels this way but the people I know who are capable of making revivals that feel similar or new musicals that feel similar, are rarely given the space to do so.
Musicals can be cool. But it seems like often when we want that we import it. Hadestown, Fun Home, Hamilton, and Here Lies Love are examples of this aesthetic trust and security but again we import that sort of work but we rarely make it ourselves. Instead it seems that we often prefer to make musicals that are fun, escapist, unthreatening.
In 2019 I directed a deconstructed revival of Into The Woods at Central School of Speech and Drama. I had long been bored with the way the show often looks like a sort of halloween/panto with polystyrene trees. So me and the designer Libby Todd explored the idea of making a production of the show that had no trees and eliminated the colour green. I was largely inspired by the American company Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz and set the piece in an abandoned falling down library. A group of young people found themselves barricaded inside and from the books on the shelves a story of well known fairy tales began to meld and distort into their world.
A friend said it reminded them of the way Opera can be staged. With a trust for the text and a belief in showing and uncovering a modern resonance. I always felt like the production had shown me a new path for how musicals could be staged. But as with most things, it happened for a week and then was over.
Oklahoma reminded me that audiences do want musicals to be different to the common expectation of fun, non-threatening and sugary. But in the UK they are so rarely allowed to be. And as I say we often import that without simultaneously trying to support its making here.
I wonder what might happen if people thought of musicals in the same part of their brain that they think of canonical plays. Thought of them with the same amount of respect and care. I also wonder what would happen if we thought of new musicals with the same care and aesthetic inspiration as we think of new plays.
But as ever I realise there are boundaries here for our perceptions of our own ability as a country to make musicals. We make a certain musical over and over again and mostly we import everything else. I think there is something in the back of most peoples’ minds here that musicals are not cool. That musicals are not important to us. We will bring in importance from elsewhere.
Of course there are counterexamples. Regent’s Park have given us some brilliantly innovative revivals and look set to continue doing so. The Almeida’s Spring Awakening. The National Theatre’s London Road and Clwyd’s Assassination of Katie Hopkins both were musicals that had the aesthetic and care of new plays. But these seem to be rare anomalies that are overwhelmed by a regular sense of undermining of the form that is all pervasive. A sense that plays can be plays and musicals should be musicals.
I have often asked what could musicals here be if we let them. If we energised directors to treat musicals with intelligence and seriousness. If we elevated writers with important things to say. But so often we would prefer to import musicals which do that rather than trust the form ourselves.
But obviously theatre costs money and there is a fear intrinsic to the lack of risk that seems to be taken. Yesterday I read this interview with film director James Gray about why film’s desire to make and support only work that is immediately commercially obvious and viable is potentially undermining the form. It reminded me a lot of what I see as the regular course of musical theatre.
“I think the movie business made a critical mistake, and really it wasn’t a recent mistake, but a big mistake” he explains, “To think of it as ‘This film did not make a ton of money, thus we don’t make that film. This film will make a ton of money, thus we make that one.’ A very strict balance sheet equation. Why is that mistake? That’s a no brainer. Any first level MBA guy or woman should know that.”
“Here’s what happened: When you make movies that only make a ton of money and only one kind of movie, you begin to get a large segment of the population out of the habit of going to the movies.”
“And then you begin to eliminate the importance of movies culturally,” he continues, “When you are so quarterly earnings bottom-line minded; you lose the big brain vision.”
“The slate though, the fact that it’s no longer broad based for theatrical by the studios, means they have forced a smaller, and smaller and smaller segment of the population to like it.”
Perhaps already successful imported work isn’t seen as so much of a financial risk because it has already been proven elsewhere. And of course I understand why post pandemic people aren’t willing to take as many risks. But I feel like it has been this way in the UK for a long time before the pandemic when it comes to musical theatre.
I think that we all got into theatre with aspirations to change lives. To change minds. To give people something new to see. The UK makes bold and inventive new plays. We regularly revive canonical plays with great integrity. Maybe it’s time to start caring and believing in musicals a little more as well as the artists who make them here.
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