BY CARY GINELL
Any production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is a special event because of the groundbreaking show it was and continues to be. The original 1943 production set a new standard by redefining what musical theater was – no longer were shows vacuous, light-hearted musical comedies where the songs interrupted the action and had little to do with the plot. Oklahoma!, like Show Boat before it, used songs to define and describe the characters as well as advance the plot. The dancing, originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, did the same thing. In Cabrillo Music Theatre’s new production of Oklahoma!, choreographer John Charron challenged himself to come up with new ways of dance interpretation. We chatted with John before an early stage in the rehearsal process several weeks ago.
VCOS: Do you prefer interpreting someone else’s original choreography or creating your own?
JOHN: Oh! Definitely creating my own! I don’t recreate anything I’ve ever done. I know that there a lot of people who are very talented at recreating other people’s work and a lot of companies actually hire those people because they know what that product is going to be. If you hire me, it’s because you know I’m going to give you a unique product for your company that’s never been done before or seen before. And that’s what I pride myself on.
VCOS: Keeping that in mind, how tied to Agnes de Mille’s original choreography is this version of Oklahoma!?
JOHN: There is none (laughs). OK, I won’t say that, but in reading the book about the making of Oklahoma! they talked about the flying wedge at the end of the song “Oklahoma!” So yes, I have a little wedge that comes down and gives you the energy of the same thing, but I always check my work after, so say there is a movie about Oklahoma!, I choreograph my show and then afterwards I’ll go and watch the movie and go, “OK, how did I screw this up?” (laughs) Or not! Or, “Oh, I think I did that a little better.” Or learn from maybe a mistake.
VCOS: So you prefer not looking at the original beforehand?
JOHN: Not looking. It would give me a preconceived notion. You just get an impression first that gives you a preconceived notion about what that number is supposed to be. I would rather just dream it up in my head and see what would happen. With this show, I struggled with the song “Many a New Day.” What is it about? Is it a bunch of girls dancing around? No. You’ve got to find the meaning of what “Many a New Day” means and interpret it through dance.
VCOS: Was Oklahoma! the first show to do that? It was one of the first to integrate the songs into the characters’ portrayals and the story, but did this go for the choreography as well?
JOHN: Yes. I think that telling the characters’ stories and having these ballets in the middle of it, during the storyline – yes, this was the very first time that was done.
VCOS: So is that the main reason why Oklahoma! is important from a choreographer’s standpoint?
VCOS: Would the show have been the same had someone other than Agnes de Mille choreograph it?
JOHN: Oh, yeah. She was very much into technique and she was a technical choreographer, but she had such a modern flair about her that made the piece so iconic. We can see it in the movie because that was her stuff, too. And if you watch the movie, you can see how she had a very stylized, modern take on classical dance. Her storytelling and the characters within it were very interesting, and that’s what I’m trying to pull out more and more. In this Oklahoma! you should be able to see the different characters within the dance.
VCOS: Have you made any changes of your own?
JOHN: Yes. I’ve added two little girls to “Kansas City” who dance with Will, and I’ve kind of added them to the show as sort of these onlookers. These were two short little girls, but when I auditioned them, they were so talented, they didn’t quite fit in the junior ensemble with the little kids and weren’t tall enough or old enough to be in the adult ensembles, so I added these roles. They’re going to be peeking and lurking through the whole show and then occasionally they’ll run into a number, dance with a principal, and then get scared away. That’s what I think is good theater, when you can pick out and develop new characters through dance.
VCOS: And this won’t hurt the story if it’s done right, correct?
JOHN: No, it doesn’t. For example, “Many a New Day” is six minutes long. A regular production number might be three minutes – this one is six minutes long. So there’s room to play in the middle there. And there are all of these different thematics that show up – here, the music is telling me something so let’s explore that.
VCOS: Who are the two girls that you are doing this with?
JOHN: Well, Antonia Vivino was in Bye, Bye Birdie with me last year. The other little girl is Kendyl Yokoyama, who is Antonia’s exact height, and they just danced so beautifully that we just had to find a way to get them in the show. So they’re my “peekers,” as I call them. They just go around peeking at everything, get involved, and then run away.
VCOS: Who’s the toughest character to work with in the show?
JOHN: For me, I guess it would be Will Parker because he has to dance and act and also be in front. That’s as far as the principals go. Everybody else does a specific thing. My “Dream Curly” is coming in from New York because he’s worked for me for a lot of years. He’s a dancer. That’s what he does. And I know he’s going to deliver. But Will Parker has got to sing, dance, and act. And that’s the character that we lost, because our original Will got injured on the first day of rehearsal and blew his knee out, so we have a new one coming in. But the guy who is replacing him is a fantastic guy who has worked for me for a long time as well. He was out on the Mamma Mia! tour and just got back, so luckily it just worked out.
VCOS: The dream ballet has always fascinated me because the performers dancing are not the original characters they are portraying, they are dreamlike representations of those characters.
JOHN: Hopefully it will not be confusing as far as who is who in the dream ballet. At the top of the ballet, my concept is that Laurey falls asleep, and then immediately, we see the house start to glow and all this fog comes out of the house, and we see the Dream Laurey, wearing the exact same thing, with the same hair color and cut. I actually have her going over to herself and having a moment with herself, kind of being her essence, and then taking off. So that way, we get the connection between the two Laureys. From that moment on, you know that’s Laurey. The next person you see is Curly and they dance together and Laurey experiences what she wants their relationship to be, which is joyous and full of love, freedom, and youthfulness. That’s the great part of the dream. Then you get to see her wedding with the bridesmaids all getting her ready and primping her and all that. All of that is foreshadowed in “Many a New Day,” where the girls dress her up a little bit. We try to foreshadow everything by the time the ballet comes around, and once the wedding starts, and everyone is processioning down, it all goes red and blurry and Jud replaces Curly, which is where the dream turns into a nightmare.
VCOS: Is it hard making Jud into a graceful ballet dancer?
JOHN: The end of my ballet is a physical battle between Jud and Curly. So, not really. If you can learn to do all the pretty stuff you can learn to make it ugly. In my new version of the show, the fight will be danced beautifully as well. It won’t be just a fight. It will be danced more beautifully than I’ve done it before. I have Michael McArthur this time – we’re opening Can-Can on Broadway next year; we just did it at Paper Mill and he was in the cast there. He’s just amazing, and so experienced at partnering and doing different kinds of lifts, so that’s why I wanted to bring him in. He’s going to make the end of the ballet a really physical, beautiful thing.
VCOS: You’ve done Oklahoma! before, right?
JOHN: Yes, this will be my third time.
VCOS: Did you keep copious notes on your previous times?
JOHN: I have my score and I have it marked up to what I thought these different themes were telling me. So yes, I have looked over everything.
VCOS: Do you ever copy yourself?
JOHN: No, because I end up changing it every time. It’s the same thing with Birdie last year. People told me, “Oh, we loved our Birdie fifteen years ago!” And then I watched it and said to myself, “I’m not doing any of that.” And that’s exactly what happened this time.
VCOS: Do you think you improve with each production?
JOHN: Oh, YEAH! We grow and improve all the time. All artists do. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of shows now, and I’m just such a better choreographer than I was twenty years ago. It all looks elementary to me now, when re-looking at my work again. I’m just more sophisticated in my choreography now.
VCOS: So this will be the best one you’ve ever done, right?
JOHN: It will be the best one I’ve ever done. This Oklahoma! is off the hook already, because I don’t think Cabrillo has ever seen this caliber of dancers before. Seriously. You go see community theater and there are all these little men dancers running around – then you go to Broadway and everyone is six feet tall, and that’s what I have this time. “Kansas City” is huge. I have five guys who are over six feet and are men, not boys. The same with the women. My can-can girls are all 5′ 8″.So when they kick, it’s going to be a force! This is going to look like a truly professional company.
Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Oklahoma! opens July 17 for a ten-day run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For ticket information, dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.