The dark side of classic musicals

In 2015, Sher went on to helm a production of The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical exploring the struggle for understanding across the cultural divide between East and West via a story about a British governess hired to work for the King of Siam. It’s a show that sets out to address the subject of colonialism, but while it was progressive in its time, its storyline can feel decidedly regressive to modern audiences, with its white saviour heroine. Sher’s staging, which netted him another Tony, avoided some of the exoticism associated with the show and featured a mostly Asian cast including Ken Watanabe as the King. But the reason the material holds up, says Sher, is because “they had this remarkable ability to ask these questions at the time. Do they ask it as perfectly as we might do it now? No, they probably don’t. But they’re at least trying.” Even The Sound of Music, he adds, takes place against the backdrop of rising Nazism in Europe.

Of all the duo’s works, Carousel, written in 1945 and inspired by a 1909 Hungarian play called Lilliom, is the one that feels most jarring to contemporary audiences, with its depiction of domestic abuse. It tells the story of a man, carnival barker Billy Bigelow, who ascends to heaven after dying in a robbery attempt, before being allowed back to Earth for one day: but Billy is a violent man who, when interrogated in the afterlife, denies his treatment of his wife Julie by saying: “I wouldn’t beat a little thing like that — I hit her.” For Timothy Sheader, who directed Carousel at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regents Park last year, the only option was to tackle the violence head-on. His version relocated the musical to a working-class town in the north of England and reorchestrated the score for brass instruments. Crucially, it did not tiptoe around Bigelow’s abusiveness and when he dies, it does not let him off the hook. Sheader replaced the God-like Starkeeper figure who Billy encounters in the afterlife with a courtroom of women holding 6-ft carousel poles, which they use to surround him.

The resulting production, according to Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski, didn’t “so much reinvent ‘Carousel’ as blowtorch away three-quarters-of-a-century of chintz to reveal the greatness underneath. It preserves everything that’s wonderful about the show, while ruthlessly incinerating much that dates and problematises it.”

Sheader thinks it’s important to remember that “these two middle-class men were writing about male violence in a musical on Broadway in the 1940s. The way they treated the subject matter may be quite different to how we would treat that subject matter if we were writing about it right now, but they addressed it.” At the same time, reinvention and interrogation of the material is essential, says Sheader, if the shows are to continue to have relevance – and continue to be performed at all. Though the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate took some convincing of his concept to begin with, they were open to his approach ­– a decision founded on a degree of pragmatism, he believes, since “I don’t think those titles have very much longer in their original form.”

After Oklahoma! opened, Lorenz Hart – Rodgers’ former writing partner – came up to the duo in the Broadway hangout Sardi’s and congratulated them on a show that would last 20 years. He was over half-a-century out and counting, which is testament to their complexity and their ability to speak to us today.

Oklahoma! is at London’s Young Vic until 25 June

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