Oklahoma! was the first musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and was ground-breaking in its day, developing the idea of the “book musical” initiated by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II when they wrote Show Boat. Not only did Oklahoma! integrate the songs and dance into the narrative, but it used recurring musical motifs throughout to underpin the story.

Now Richard Carroll is putting a fresh spin on the classic American show by casting a female actor as the cocky cowboy Curly McLain and using a bluegrass quartet instead of an orchestra in his production for Black Swan State Theatre Company, which runs from 28 November to 20 December.

Emily Havea and Richard Carroll. Photograph © Maryna Rothe

Emily Havea will play Curly. Carroll approached Havea – whose credits include the musical Caroline, or Change at the Hayes Theatre Co, Julius Caesar for Bell Shakespeare and Kill Climate Deniers for Griffin Theatre Company – over a year ago about playing the role.

“I definitely knew that I wanted to cast a female actor in the role. For me it was really about the story-telling. I’ve always loved Oklahoma! but I’ve always been slightly bemused by the fact that on page one we know that Curly and Laurey like each other and that neither of them like Jud at all and so the on-going love triangle – who will Laurey choose – has always seemed to lack tension. I love the idea of gender-swap casting in general and it’s something I’ve done before (in productions including Spamalot at the Hayes Theatre Co) and I thought that having a female actor play Curly would add a lot more complexity to the show,” says Carroll.

Asked if Havea will be playing Curly as a man or a woman, Carroll says: “We are not changing anything in the script so Curly will still be referred to as ‘he’ in the script. Obviously [during] rehearsals we will be having a lot of conversations particularly with Emily about what we think she is playing. But also I don’t really want to tell the audience, I want the audience to read it into what they will and create their own version.”

Oklahoma! premiered in 1943. Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, it is set in 1906 in farm country in the Oklahoma Territory where farm girl Laurey Williams is being courted by Curly and the sinister farmhand Jud Fry. There is also a secondary romance between cowboy Will Parker and the flirtatious Ado Annie.

Asked what Havea thought when he approached her about playing Curly, Carroll says she was “surprised – not just because of the question of casting but also because a lot of people think of Oklahoma! as being a very old-fashioned musical and it’s not the kind of work that maybe she would expect to be approached about. But as soon as I talked to her about the idea she was really excited and really up for it.”

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation, which looks after their estate, took a bit more convincing.

“We initially made a request through formal channels and it was knocked back to begin with, and they said ‘it’s not something we are able to approve,’” says Carroll.

“Then I actually took it upon myself as the director not the producer to write a personal plea and got in touch with Ted Chapin who runs the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation and his team. I basically sent them an email saying, ‘look, I love what you do, I totally respect your decision and the decision is up to you, I just want to lay out to you what the idea is for making this request. And I talked a bit about the storytelling and a broader perspective of the future of the canon of musical theatre and what that will look like in order to keep musical theatre alive, and how exciting this would be to do. And to their real credit they listened to that and came back and said, ‘OK, yes you can do it’. The only thing they said was they wanted to approve the specific actor that was cast and they very happily approved Emily.”

Stefanie Caccamo and Emily Havea. Photograph © Marnya Rothe

Getting approval to stage the musical with a reduced cast of nine and a bluegrass quartet led by Musical Director Victoria Falconer was much more straightforward. “I think maybe that’s to do with the fact that obviously there’s been the recent Broadway production [directed by Daniel Fish in 2018] which was done on a much smaller scale and maybe they used that as a precedent, I’m not sure,” says Carroll.

The rest of the cast will include Stefanie Caccamo, who Carroll directed in the musical Once for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, as Laurey, Andy Cook as Jud Fry, Caroline McKenzie as Aunt Ellter, Laila Bano-Rind as Ado Annie, Luke Hewitt as Andrew Carnes, Cameron Taylor as Ali Hakim, and recent WAAPA graduates Sara Reed as Dream Laurey (in the dream ballet) and Axel Duffy as Will Parker.

The production will be performed in the round on the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre. “I want people to walk into the space and go, ‘OK I am walking into this community,’” says Carroll. “Live theatre to me, that’s what it should be about – we are in this space together. That’s why I always try, to a greater or lesser extent, to create that feeling, whether it’s the performers coming into the audience or bringing the audience onto the stage. It was [Black Swan Artistic Director] Clare Watson who initially suggested that we look at doing the show in the round really early on, and I was really excited by that idea and how it would feel, especially with the idea of the box social ball in Act 2 and all the community gathering. It’s very handy when you can have audience members at your ball!”

Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA presents Oklahoma! on the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre, 28 November – 20 December


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