Sunday 7 September 2008


(#3: 29 September 1956, 2 weeks; 15 June 1957, 1 week)

Track listing: Overture/Main Title/Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’/The Surrey With The Fringe On Top/Kansas City/Kansas City Ballet/I Cain’t Say No/Many A New Day/Many A New Day Ballet/People Will Say We’re In Love/Pore Jud Is Daid/Out Of My Dreams/Out Of My Dreams Ballet/Entr’acte/The Farmer And The Cowman/The Farmer And The Cowman Ballet/All Er Nuthin’/All Er Nuthin’ Ballet/People Will Say We’re In Love (Reprise)/Oklahoma/Finale: Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’/Overture (LP Version)

For a medium like the long-playing record which was originally designed with classical music in mind, it’s fitting that musical soundtracks should have been so dominant in the early years of the album chart; after all, their cycles of songs linked by common plot and narrative lent themselves to the LP format as few other forms of music did at the time – a more easily digestible variety of opera.

There seems to have been no great precipitating factor in the return of the Oklahoma! soundtrack to number one nine months after its initial run; given that in September 1956 the album had already been available for over a year its success illustrates the extremely slow turnover, verging on stasis, of the early charts; in that first top five list with Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! at number one, both the Carousel and Oklahoma! soundtracks were also present and the list was completed by two live jazz albums, both recorded at the Crescendo Club in Los Angeles, by Mel Torme and Louis Armstrong respectively (Armstrong we’ll be returning to soon, and the Torme album was the record from which stemmed the top five hit single “Mountain Greenery”; as with all such affairs, I am wondering whether my father-in-law might have been in the audience for either). There wasn’t a great deal of competition, and there’s little doubt that had the chart started earlier, Oklahoma !’s run at the top would have been far more substantial.

As it is, the fact that the prequel reached number one after the sequel complicates linear storytelling somewhat. So much of what is stated and implied in Oklahoma! seems to me to come to clearer and fuller fruition in Carousel, but conversely Oklahoma!’s surface is far brighter; “People Will Say We’re In Love” is a considerably happier study of extended irony than “If I Loved You”; Will Parker and Ado Annie a goofier Mr and Mrs Snow. Then again, we are still dealing with surfaces here. “Out Of My Dreams,” for instance, is a more ambiguous and infinitely less cosy “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Although the musical is set a generation after Carousel, it still seems to precede it in all senses, even though its central thrust is about dealing with the future; the show is set at the point when Oklahoma is about to accede to the Union and become a proper, full-blown state, with all the relief and responsibility that will entail, not to mention all the dread. Of course it is hard to get a grasp on the musical in terms of its original revolutionary impact on the 1943 Broadway stage without actually having sat there, watching the jaws of the audience drop as, instead of the standard flurry of high-kicking, colourful girls, they got a dim dawn and somebody singing offstage, seemingly as quiet as possible, with rhythmic, rhetorical repeats drawn from the English folksong tradition: “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow” to introduce the cautious, breath not yet taken wonder of “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” as though stepping out onto the first morning of the world, as though starting again. Showboat and Porgy And Bess were precedents, but Oklahoma! suggested things not attempted in musicals before (that is if Porgy is to be considered an opera, which many, its composers included, do or did), a slow, patient rise rather than instant gratification.

Then again, Oklahoma! could also be said to be very subtle in its futurism; Gordon MacRae’s Curly stares out at the prairie – “All the cattles are standing like statues” except for “a little brown marsupial” – which could refer to the dawn of the Earth, before God had opted to bring life to his creations, or to the statues of cattle to be viewed when entering the anti-future of such ventures to come as Milton Keynes, mass production as the subtextual goal of assimilation. Corn as high as an elephant’s eye, observed by someone who had in all probability never seen an elephant in his life.

The future in Oklahoma! is embraced with cautious enthusiasm; Gene Nelson’s rapidly blinking Will comes back from the “modren world” as represented by Kansas City, bulging with good-natured disbelief at the cars, skyscrapers (tall enough to shame any elephant) and “ri-di-ai-tor”s he’s seen there, but warning that “they’ve gone about as fir as they can go.” “The Farmer And The Cowman” constantly undermines its vaudevillian “territory folk should stick together” schtick with interestingly harmonised verses which foretell the capitalist confrontations to come (a quarter of a century after the film, Heaven’s Gate would attempt to make the war explicit), its turn-taking jibes inserted with the smiling precision of daggers or pitchforks loaded with gelignite. Still, by the time the title song rolls around, they turn towards hopelessly optimistic visions of the glories to come – “Soon be living in a brand new state!,” “Flowers on the prairie” (when they already know there will be skyscrapers and dams), “Plenty of space and plenty of room” – but note the subtle train rhythms which enter towards song’s end, the mechanisation that will simultaneously make and break them. There’s a lovely four-part harmony on one of the quiet “Oklahoma” chants which directly foresees (as so much of this work does) Brian Wilson and SMiLE, and the theme of “Cabinessence” in particular – Eastern immigrants helping to build the railways and connect America to itself – might also be usefully borne in mind when considering next week’s entry.

But bear in mind also that the musical opened just a few years after the book and film of The Grapes Of Wrath (hence the additional poignancy of the “You’re doing OK, Oklahoma” line) so we already know that this story is not bound for a happy ending, that Curly and Laurey are likely to become Ma and Pa Joad. Its jolly nature therefore conceals an abyss of doubt and fear, and the latter is best considered in light of the two ghosts which give this story its point.

Ghosts, because the character of Jud Fry, the real eye of the elephant in Oklahoma!’s sitting room, appears only momentarily but crucially in the context of the soundtrack, while we hear nothing from Eddie Albert’s snake oil salesman Ali Hakim. It is here that I must declare my own prejudice; in the summer of 1979 my school staged the musical, in considerably abridged and simplified form, as its annual “opera.” I wasn’t asked to present myself for audition, nor did I feel any great urge to do so. Jud is the only character I would have considered playing, but then it was perhaps better that I didn’t; at fifteen I had no profound insights into what makes a “bad” man bad and would have undoubtedly played the role for comedy, when, as life has subsequently taught me, the last thing you should do with someone like Jud Fry is laugh at him.

Although the film is as dull and eventlessly directed (by Fred Zinnemann) as the movie of Carousel was, Rod Steiger’s Jud is an extremely disquieting performance and seems to blow in from the wind of a different film altogether. Like Cotten’s Uncle Charlie or Hopper’s Frank Booth, his evil fullness is so evidently preferable to the “goodness” of those film’s other characters (though either could have drifted into being through the dreams of Teresa Wright or Kyle MacLachlan – “In Dreams,” lest we forget) that you root for him all the way through, even or especially when he’s being a morose and clumsy slimeball towards Shirley Jones’ Laurey; does his struggle to articulate himself make him less or more of a man than MacRae’s smilingly smug Curly, as he ejects Jud from the dance, or as he laughingly fantasises Jud’s death?

For “Poor Jud Is Daid” is maybe the blackest and most disturbing song Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. The Overture betrays elements of Kurt Weill within its lusty Aaron Copland hoedowning – not to mention the sinister breeze in the air of the equally disquieting strings which never quite leaves the various thematic recapitulations – but this echt-elegy, sung by MacRae and echoed by Steiger, is a study worthy of Brecht. The song’s tonality is restless while MacRae deploys steamroller irony to ridicule the not yet daid Jud, dreaming of his hanging himself, pondering on the differing smell of the daffodils after he’s been buried (and there are elements on which the young Jacques Brel in particular must have picked up – see “Funeral Tango”), his barks of “WOOD!” and “GOOD!” to echo Steiger’s “coffin of wood” and “gone for good.” Finally, in a gesture which would still be audacious on the 2008 stage, MacRae declaims “It’s a shame that he won’t keep, but it’s summer and we’re runnin’ out of ice” as trombones blow a shocking raspberry finale; it’s almost in keeping with UK Grime in extremis (“them two dirty shirts he always wore,” “he treated the rats like equals”) but then there is the unexpectedly tender core of the song, as MacRae sweetly and sorrowfully notes “He loved everything and everybody in the world – only he never let on – so nobody ever noted.”

Jud’s preordained suicide – like Billy Bigelow, he accidentally falls on his own knife – is terrifying and far more disturbing than the one in Carousel because he is a Rochester without title or evident point who is never in hope of finding his Jane – Laurey, amiably dithering over whether to go with him or Curly to the barn dance, could never have been that saviour – so his tale is never told and he will have both lived and died in vain. But then perhaps I ought to pause at that “amiably dithering” since “Out Of My Dreams” finds Laurey as confused and fucked up as Jud or for that matter Billy. The song quickly evolves into a staggering 14-minute ballet sequence, peppered with whole tones, Curly’s reassuring strings fighting against Jud’s snarling, questioning brass and percussion. The various song motifs we’ve heard thus far are recycled and rejigged but we can’t quite get a handle on them; the increasing atonality of the intruding chords suggests Alban Berg trying to hijack the orchestra pit. Eventually the number, and the musical, crack and thunderstorms, gunshots and screams are herded in, as are the strings we will hear a generation later on “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow.” Winds howl, brass usher in a final, apocalyptic thundercrack…and it all dissolves into Steiger’s gruff “It’s time to get started on the party,” paralysing Laurey in her own terror.

As for Ali Hakim, or indeed as for Will and Ado Annie, their relationship appears already foredoomed; in “All Er Nuthin’” it’s heartbreaking to hear Gloria Grahame, the coffee scaldee (and eventual coffee scalder) of The Big Heat, whimpering about giving an imitation of a crawfish as she submits to Will’s stupid demands for slippers and pipe fealty (ditto her quivering, aw shucks guilt on “I Cain’t Say No”). Stupid because there can be no room for anything else in his preordained world – unlike the Snows, they are unlikely to do any dreaming while the children are asleep; indeed Will thunders that if they do have a child, “he’d better look a lot like me!” with the dumb obstinacy of the soon-to-be wifebeater, obsessed with a traveller who in this narrative has not even materialised; like Jud, he exists more as a dream or ideation than a reality.

Similarly, what is there for Laurey and Curly but more of the same, albeit with more grinning? Laurey struggles with her choice because instinctively she knows that Jud is likely to offer more excitement if she can make the effort to break him open; that, albeit seemingly inarticulate and permanently resentful, he’s able to give her more life, and certainly more sex, than the dully grinning Curly could ever hope to do – note her multiple ironic “many”s and “never”s scattered throughout “Many A New Day.” I wonder whether the ambiguity would have been stepped up if the producers hadn’t shown a young, pre-fame James Dean the door when he turned up to audition for the part of Curly; but then they may already have realised that ideally Dean would have had to be cast as both Curly and Jud.

For Jud also represents a dirty, seamy past of which image the pregnant new state is anxious to wash itself. Everyone has to stand shoulder to shoulder, make the correct faces, say the right things, now; we couldn’t have stayed there, how could you even think that we might have done? Thus “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is amiable clip clop, not devoid of sexuality (“one’s like snow,” MacRae licks his lips at one point, “the other’s more like miiiiiilk!,” and later, as Laurey falls asleep on his shoulder on the return journey, a repeated whisper: “don’t you wish you’d-a go on forever?” – not to mention the startled “ker-plop!,” the conspiratorial “don’t you hurry” and the descending, elongated quiver of “friiiiiiiinge” towards the end) but not really promising anything in the end except – a little more silk? “People Will Say We’re In Love” begins with Laurey unravelling “a practical list of don’ts for you” and despite the irony it’s believable that all the couple would ever want to do is the right thing, in public, care what the neighbours think (despite the “let people say we’re in love” arc at the end of the musical).

The performances here – again, we are dealing with the Angel expanded CD edition - are technically adequate and not a lot more; Jones misses quite a lot of key notes, Steiger and Nelson do not really need to “sing,” while MacRae carries on in his own merrily absurd Victor Mature of Broadway way as the hollow but grinning lunkhead, a far more neutral performance than the one he would give Bigelow. It’s likely that a Britain still broken by its own war a decade or more after it had ended would have loved colourful celebrations of communality, whatever their subtext or foreclosing forebodings, and so Oklahoma! thrived in its own “chin up!” way, even if the film, as David Thomson remarked, seemed to strip the musical of its exclamation mark.