- OnStage Editor-in-Chief
Theatre is all about perspective. Depending on how you look at a song or characters, the entire arc of the story can change. Take Grease for instance. On one side it's looked at as a fun, teenage musical about falling in love and getting through high school. On the other side it's a cautionary tale, making the statement that it's okay to succumb to peer pressure to get the boy of your dreams.
By looking at some of these shows in a different light, it allows us to look through the eyes of a different character. One musical that comes to mind is Oklahoma!
While I used to think it was about love and how a farmer and cowboy could be friends, seeing Shuler Hensley's brilliant performance as Jud, change my entire view on the piece. Hensley, who won the Olivier and Tony Awards for the role, brought out a new, more sympathetic side to the character that had not been seen before. What was to many a happy romp in the midwest, became a horror story of bullying, ignorance and death. But to understand what I'm saying, you have to look at the show from Jud's perspective:
Jud Fry is a lonely, quiet, brooding farmhand, who as far as we know, keeps to himself but all the while longs for Laurey, his employer's niece. With the box social coming up that evening Laurey, knowing full well that Jud is in love with her, asks him to accompany her to the event simply to spite a handsome suitor she's flirting with, pretty boy Curly.
Upon hearing this, Curly becomes jealous and visits the smokehouse where Jud lives. Curly begins to tell Jud how nobody cares about him and the only way he'll be respected and receive love from women, is if he kills himself. Curly sings a song which basically lays out the plan for Jud's suicide and how wonderful his funeral will be.
After Curly leaves, Jud sings "Lonely Room" which demonstrates his obsessive and lonely personality. The lyrics talk of Jud's desire to have someone, a wife of his own. He sings, "The girl that I wan't, ain't afraid of my arms, and her own soft arms keep me warm." If that's not a cry of despair, I don't know what is.
We all know what happens in Act 2.
Jud is rejected by Laurey, flies into a rage and is fired. And then almost instantly after he's rejected, Laurey is engaged the Curly, the guy who tried to convince Jud to kill himself.
Jud then gets drunk, comes back to confront Curly, gets into a fight and falls on his own knife and dies.
And to make it even more horrific, the townspeople quickly form a kangaroo court and decide quickly that Curly isn't to blame for Jud's death and then they all sing about the joy of living in their home state. Curtain.
The tragic point that's missed about this is that nothing probably would have happened to Jud, had Curly and Laurey left him be. Everything that Jud does is in reaction to what Curly imposes on him. Through bullying and ignorance of mental illness, Jud lashed out violently and ended up dead. He becomes and established villain without ever doing anything villainous to begin with.
I don't expect most people to notice this or schools to think about this before they perform it, but if they did, I wonder if it would be performed as much as it is.