Oklahoma! and the Power of Art
I feel as though I am always talking about my deep belief in the power of art. I genuinely believe that art can change the world. It can alter human minds, and human minds can change the world. In an age of darkness, lies, injustice, and pure evil, I believe art- or rather- truth-telling through metaphor is a powerful antidote. Art (sound art) requires us to think and grow, allows us to become unsettled in what we thought we knew, and then develop an empathy otherwise unseen.
I can think of no more significant example of how powerful art can be than my recent trip to the theatre to see the touring production of the 2019 Tony-winning revival of Oklahoma! I was in no condition to receive what the show wanted to give me, but that didn’t stop it from chewing me up and spitting me out. Good art makes us feel something. This production of Oklahoma! had me feeling many things: anger, anxiety, sadness, despair, and even fear! Yet, amid these intense emotions, I was awe-struck by the set design, lighting design, and new orchestrations. This was a very dark take on the overly optimistic Oklahoma! I have always known. I have never seen more people leave at intermission (never to return) than I did with this production. Nashville wasn’t ready for Oklahoma! (On a side note, please don’t leave a show halfway through, not only does it highlight a narrow mind, but it’s incredibly rude to the cast and crew who are giving their all to present this art form.) Ashley and I had strangers turn to us during intermission and afterward, asking how we felt. The many total blackouts, use of live video, and loud gunshots kept the room extremely tense. The lighthearted anthem of the American West was flipped on its head, becoming a thriller, speaking to the modern dystopian America where we are currently living. I was sick leaving the theatre.
So, was it good or bad, you may be asking? I strive not to use such simple language in my new understanding of art. Instead, I try to articulate how I feel about the art (which you can see above). Most of all, in my measuring of excellence in art, I always ask two questions. Is this piece telling the truth, and did it make me feel something? In some ways, I would say the answer to the first question is yes, and in every way, the answer to the second question is yes. So what kept my mind reeling after the production? I’ll tell you.
This revival of Oklahoma! divided audiences and critics when it premiered on Broadway in 2019. It was a stripped-down, dark take on what many feel is one of the most significant pieces of musical theater ever written. The kicker? Not a single line or lyric from the original production was altered. And that simple fact shook me to my core. I couldn’t believe it. As I walked out of the theatre, sick and speechless, I was in complete shock at the power of inflection, pause, and staging. I have never seen a revival do what this did to the original. Everything I thought I knew about Oklahoma! was tossed out to the curb. The production asked me to see something with new eyes, from a new perspective, going out on a limb just for a moment, and hopefully exiting changed. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this new production of Oklahoma! (did you read the bit about me feeling physically ill? LOL) as much as I am filled with respect for it. This may be the most I’ll-think-about-this-piece-for-days-art since Promising Young Women.
When I worked with high schoolers several years ago, I always told them to be passionate about something. Choose anything and give it everything you have, I would say. I alter that plea now and say this instead: speak truth. Find what truth you need to spread and express it through beauty and metaphor; speak it through your art. Create and add something profound to this world. Violence and chaos seem to be the law of the land; let’s push back with aesthetics, love, and hope. Let’s create not just for today but for tomorrow. As I’ve said, I can’t say I enjoyed the feelings Oklahoma! sent me home with, but at least I was able to feel something! I want my art to speak truth beautifully, in a way that some would not otherwise be able to stomach. I believe in the power of art.