KNIVES FROM SYRIA" is the source of a musical score I first heard, aptly, in Cairo, Egypt. For all the title's overtones of the modern Middle East, it was about the American Middle West and everyone now knows it as "Oklahoma."
It was late spring of '43. Some newcomers had arrived by slow boat from the States, and we gathered in a friend's garden on Gezire Island. One was the late theatrical cartoonist, Milton Marx, assigned to paint the history of the U.S. Ninth Air Force. Marx had brought with him the sheet music from Broadway's latest smash.
Before the night was over, we all were singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "I Can't Say No." Soon even Cairo's 5-year-old bootblacks along Sharia Kasr El Nil -- "The Street of the Broken Heads" -- would be singing them too, a clue that this was a score that could travel.
It would be three years before I saw the original production in New York's St. James Theater, but from Cairo I never doubted that this would supplant "Show Boat" and my father's favorite, "Robin Hood," with its 1891 Reginald De Koven score's "Oh, Promise Me" and "Brown October Ale."
In time I would visit countless productions: by the "national" company, which toured the United States for more than 10 years; by theaters in Copenhagen and Moscow; by college and dinner theaters across the United States. At each performance audiences would be roused by the buoyant title song and its staging. Now it's having its most ambitious production in years at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
In the 37 years since "Oklahoma" took over in New Haven as "Away We Go," all the creators have written of its achievement as an ensemble creation. Richard Rodgers in his "Musical Stages" wrote:
"When a show works perfectly, it's because all the individual parts complement each other and fit together. No single element overshadows any other. In a great musical the orchestrations sound the way the costumes look. That's what made "Oklahoma" work. All the components dovetail. There was nothing extraneous or foreign, nothing that pushed itself into the spotlight yelling 'Look at Me.' It was a work created by many that gave the impression of having been created by one."
How did all this ever start under the title "Knives From Syria"?
It began with an Oklahoma playwright who preached and practiced regional theater. Born in 1899 in the Indian territory soon to become a state, Lynn Riggs once wrote: "A Credo for the Tributary Theater":
"A theater can stand for a time without any hard and fast intentions but in the long run, if it is to live, it must have visionary as well as practical goals."
His first play, a one-act published in 1925, concerned aspiring youth in an unpromising environment. His heroine glimpsed a world beyond her own through a glib peddler selling "knives from Syria" -- her best chance to see the hills beyond her native flatlands.
Six years later, Riggs had developed this situation into a bittersweet folkplay using the peddler, the girl and her longings but adding the conflict between the cowboy, represented by her lover, and the farmer, represented by her family. This play, "Green Grow the Lilacs," captivated New York's Theatre Guild, especially its codirector, Theresa Helburn.
Helburn had encouraged Riggs to insert folk music such as "Home on the Range," "Slip to My Lou" and "Git Along Little Doggies." With Franchot Tone, June Walker, Helen Westley and Lee Strasberg (as the peddler) this version had a fair run of 64 performances in 1931.
For the next decate Helburn kept hammering at her Guild colleagues that the Riggs play could become "not a musical comedy in the familiar sense but a play in which music and dancing would be aids to and adjuncts of the plot itself in telling the story." With the Guild down to $30,000 -- and the belief that $100,000 would be needed -- the project was dubbed "Helburn's Folly."
Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, the major hit writers of the period, were approached. But at that point Hart, cracking up physically, encouraged his partner of nearly 25 years to look for another word man.
The key was Oscar Hammerstein II, who hadn't had a hit since 1927's "Show Boat." A quiet, upbeat man, Hammerstein already had recognized "Lilac's" potential when it first appeared, but his "Show Boat" collaborator, Jerome Kern, had been quickly, strongly negative. When Rodgers invited Hammerstein to collaborate, Hammerstein's anxiety was over Hart. "It could kill him," he told Rodgers. Insisting on a holiday, Hart told Rodgers: "You couldn't pick a better man than Oscar."
Hammerstein's method of adapting could hardly be more amply illustrated than in the way he wrote the first song's lyrics. He used Riggs' stage direction for the start of his play. Riggs had written:
"It is a radiant summer morning several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of earth -- men, cattle in the meadow, blades of the young corn, streams -- makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a visible golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of imagination, focusing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away."
From that Hammerstein wrote:
There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow,
There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high, as an elephant's eye
An' it looks like it's climbin' clear up to the sky.
His imaginative stagecraft was especially keen for his delineation of Jud Fry, the Riggs villain who terrorized Laurey. How to make him credible and interesting?
Hammerstein achieved it first through Curly's eyes in the duet with Jud, "Pore Jud Is Daid," black humor ahead of its time. Jud's solo, "Lonely Room," immediately follows, a striking character illumination.
Poetic flavors in the Riggs original inspried both collaborators. To read and then to trace how Hammerstein's words and Rodgers' music worked directly from their source is a lesson in the elusive art of creating a muscial play. For the last dozen years of his life. Riggs had the pleasure of knowing what his regionalism had inspired -- as well as more income than he'd ever earned in his career.
Choosing a director would provie a hurdle. Joshua Logan was going into the Army, Bretagne Windust and Elia Kazan turned down the offer. Bouben Mamoulian, who had created films with both Rodgers and Hammerstein, became what later would seem an inevitable choice. Mamoulian knew what many directors have yet to learn. Audiences felt "Oklahoma" had staged itself.
Appearing in her own "Redeo" with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Agnes de Mille offered herself as choreographer and though, as she's said, "there was only a flat choreographer's fee" for her work, it propelled not only her own career but that of the evolving American musical.
For De Mille's imaginative "Out of My Dreams" sequence ending Act I not only was but remains the ingenious spark of "Oklahoma".She would go on to "Brigadoon" and one of the unique careers in American dance and letters but it was her interior vision of Laurey through pure dance which revolutionized our musical stage.
That it has been recreated so authentically at the Kennedy Center lies in a long-time member of the "Oklahoma" family, Gemze de Lappe.
With the admiring gratitude of De Mille, Gemze de Lappe has remembered how each gesture fits into each note of Robert Russell Bennett's definitive orchestrations, how the "dancing" Laurey's leaps must fall, how the "dancing" Curly's fingers should mime a gun, where "The Girl Who Falls Down" should fall down, how the Postcard Girls should grind their can-can. "It comes back to me when I hear the music," she half-explains.
De Lappe is one of theater's unsung artists. She has known all the steps of every female dancer in "Oklahoma" (incredible as it may seem, union regulations never allowed a filmed record of the ballet). And she has had a career apart, including last season's "Gorey Stories" and TV assignments. After teaching at Smith College this fall, she'll be off again for England -- where she was in "Oklahoma's" historic Drury Lane run -- to oversee the dancing for another imminent "Oklahoma" revival.
Judging the rest of the Kennedy Center production against the standards of the original, you couldn't ask for better singing, especially by Laurence Guittard, absolutely the best of all my many Curlys. As good as any Will Parker is Harry Groener, a song-and-dance personality of star class. Mary Wickes, as the wise, ebullient Aunt Eller, ranks with my favorite in that role, Edith Gresham, whose grandfather, John T. Ford, built Ford's Theater. Though her spoken diction is poor, Christine Andrews sings splendidly, appealingly, as Laurey -- one of the two brunettes in a long tradition of blond Laureys.
The costumes and set design are another matter. Kristine Watson's costumers are fake-looking and rather more fussy than Miles White's neat, natty clothes which managed to look laundered and dried in the sunshine. (Not the least of Guittard's triumphs is over his Act II costume, which suggests that the cowboy has turned motorcyclist.)
Of Lemuel Ayres' original design, one critic noted that it "would seem to have been stolen out of an Oklahoma town one night when nobody was looking." By contrast, Robert T. Williams' set designs are a serious drawback -- tacky and basically wrong. Yellow is, and should be so reflected, the everywhere color of this musical -- including Laurey's hair -- with sunshine splashed throughout. Instead of flatlands for his drop curtain and set, Williams suggests hills.
(His rear incline removes some performing area and my gracious assumption that the incline would be used for the surrey's entrance at the finale proved wrong. This miserable little vehicle is hauled in downstage between those drab, drab, drab brown flats. Let's, at the least, have they yellowed instanter.)
While scenery can be outrageously expensive, especially to alter once it's done, the original production was financed at rock bottom, about $75,000. (They don't talk about musicals nowadays for much under a million.) Ayers' simple settings were models of that creative contribution designers can make to a whole. If the intent is to bring this production into New York, going back to Ayers' designs should get serious priority. It's all too easy to judge a revival by its looks.
Its settings apart, the Opera House revival is a $15 bargain.(It'll be over $20 in New York). And even those with long memories will be hard put to recall a finer Curly than Laurence Guittard's.