Casting same-sex couples in an iconic musical such as “Oklahoma!” is risky, admits Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch, but he believes audiences are ready for it.
“It feels like this is the right moment for our society, and the right moment for our theater to have,” he says in a videotaped interview at osfashland.org. “It just makes sense.”
In Rauch’s production of “Oklahoma!” which opens April 22 and runs through Oct. 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, Curly and Laurey are both women, and Will and Ado Andy are both men. Rauch employs other LGBTQ2+ casting, while retaining the original 1906 Oklahoma territory setting.
The music of “Oklahoma!” was written by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II and original dances are by Agnes de Mille. The musical is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs.
“With the creation of ‘Oklahoma!’ in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein broke so much ground that they essentially invented the American musical comedy as we have come to know it,” Rauch says in a release. “Three-quarters of a century later, we are privileged to try to honor and reinvent their groundbreaking spirit.”
Rauch has been envisioning a same-sex-couples “Oklahoma!” for 25 years, having felt “shut out” as a gay person watching “stories never celebrating a relationship like my own.” Rauch has been married to Christopher Liam Moore for 33 years.
While theaters were making strides in multiracial casting, he says in the video, “I realized that a big taboo was gender — if a character was written to be a certain gender in an iconic musical, that was that, right? You certainly wouldn’t change that. ... I began to dream about an ‘Oklahoma!’ in which the primary romantic relationships were of same-sex couples.
“Honestly, I loved this idea,” he says. “It deeply moved me. It energized me artistically, and I thought, this is never going to happen in my lifetime.”
Then two serendipitous things happened: in 2007 Rauch became artistic director at OSF, whose audiences are “the most adventurous in the world,” he says, and he developed a relationship with Ted Chapin, who runs the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization. Rauch obtained permission to use material from “Cinderella” in his 2012 mashup called “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella.”
“I finally got the courage to tell him my idea for ‘Oklahoma!’ and he was very clear that it’s not an idea that he would’ve been attracted to in general,” Rauch says, “but it was an idea that intrigued him because of our relationship.” Chapin got the blessings of the Rodgers and Hammerstein families, Rauch says.
Rauch test-drove his treatment of the musical during a reading last August and says “people were moved by it.”
Audience members afterward talked to him about “how sweet and heartwarming and accessible it was,” Rauch says.
The cast of “Oklahoma! features Tatiana Wechsler as Curly McLain, Royer Bockus as Laurey Williams, Jonathan Luke Stevens as Ado Andy, Jordan Barbour as Will Parker, Michael Sharon as Jud Fry, Barzin Akhavan as Ali Hakim, Bobbi Charlton as Aunt Eller, K.T. Vogt as Ma Carnes, Stefani Potter as Gertie Cummings, Cedric Lamar as Ike Skidmore, Rodney Gardiner as Cord Elam, Dan Poppen as Slim, Will Wilhelm as Leslie, Daniel T. Parker as Uncle Wilbur, Christian Bufford as Frederico, Román Zaragoza as Riggs, Cassandra Lopez as Maria, Jen Olivares as We’wha, Niani Feelings as Bea, Krista Unverferth as Ruby, Nancy Rodriguez as Vivian Skidmore, Naiya Gardiner as L’il Liza Skidmore, and Hyunmin Rhee and Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong as ensemble swings.
Music direction is by Daniel Gary Busby and choreography is by Ann Yee. Sibyl Wickersheimer is scenic designer, Linda Roethke is costume designer, Christopher Akerlind is lighting designer and Michael K. Hooker is sound designer. Amrita Ramanan is dramaturg, David Carey is voice and text director, Miriam A. Laube is associate director, Jaclyn Miller is associate choreographer, Kristin Danford is assistant voice and text director, and U. Jonathan Toppo is fight director.
Rauch acknowledges some people may complain that he’s messing with the ultimate iconic work of 20th century musical theater.
“Maybe they fear there’s something aggressive, or strident about the concept,” he says. “... People who experienced that reading just talked about how lovely it was, and you know, love is love is love.”
The show previews at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 20-21. Showtimes, ticket prices and information are available at osfashland.org or at 800-219-8161.