Friday, April 15, 2005


Okla Homa!

My daughter Jilly Beans asked me the other day if I had been watching my musicals. She said she'd been walking down the street in Boston some time ago, and all of a sudden she started singing, "Bless Your Beautiful Hide." (She said she got some funny looks!)

As everyone in my family knows, that's my favorite song from one of my favorite musicals, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," based on Plutarch's ancient tale, The Rape of the Sabine Women. I sing baritone, and I love to belt out the first stanza. (That, and it's a very humorous lyric.)

So tonight I decided to watch Oklahoma. Hands down, that's my all time favorite. All of the great American musicals have some qualities to admire. West Side Story is fully operatic, breath-taking in its score, vitality, and the raw energy it captures of its subject. Sound of Music is grand, certainly among Rodgers and Hammerstein's best work, moving, rich with a fine match of great melody and artful lyric. I enjoy My Fair Lady very much despite Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn is brilliant and "On the Street Where You Live" one of the great unrequited love songs of all time. Music Man is great fun with very catchy tunes, but more than that I think perfectly captures in musical form an earlier, more innocent America that I think many of us would love to revisit.

But Oklahoma is a precious work, quite unlike any other creation in the genre, with more beautiful melodies, clever lyrics, and downright lovely love songs than any work of its kind. That it is often regarded as the first of the Great American Musicals, suggests that no one ever was able to quite match it again.

I've seen Oklahoma several times live, and honestly, I can't watch it and not have the same physical reactions every time. When Gordon MacRae starts out with that swelling vocal in his ode to the natural world, rising in intensity as he lyrically sketches the beauty of a fine summer morning, I am there as if next to him. When he and Shirley Jones warn each other that "People May Say We're in Love," they trace the ways a love is grown, and never were two such beautiful voices paired and matched so perfectly matched to their material.

Ado Annie and Will Parker and their daliances add comic relief, and juxtapose what might be considered more earthly love against the idylic pairing of Curly and Laurey. Rod Steiger as Judd Frey stands out as one of the more remarkable of Steiger's performances, if only because he ended his career much more widely known for dramatic parts on television.

And finally, I never fail to get a catch in my throat when the full cast sings the title song. There's this great section in the score when the full chorus starts a train effect with Okla ... homa Okla ... Homa Okla ... Homa, starting low and slow, and building up to a crescendo in which they sing the refrain. If I was from Oklahoma, I'd be crying at that point, I get goosebumps just thinking about it!

So Jilly Beans, thank you for your wonderful gift tonight, I don't know that I would have thought to watch it, but I am very much glad I did.

And for all of you, if you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it in years, rent it and watch it soon. It is the finest of musical experiences, guaranteed to lift your spirit, never how high it is already!

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