Charleston Light Opera Guild director and choreographer Nina Denton Pasinetti said she couldn’t think of a better show than “Oklahoma!” to help celebrate the guild’s 70th season.
Pasinetti, who opens the show Friday night at the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center’s Little Theater, extolled the virtues of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first major show together.
“We think ‘Hamilton’ changed the face of [current] Broadway,” she said. “In its day, ‘Oklahoma!’ did. It created a completely different spin on things.”
Sitting on a couch in the guild’s playhouse on Tennessee Avenue, Pasinetti leafed through a book containing newspaper clippings, handbills and programs from past productions of the musical.
There have been many.
“It used to be that if we said we were doing ‘Oklahoma!’ everybody would say, ‘That thing again?’” Pasinetti said that wasn’t really the guild’s fault.
“It wasn’t that we did it that often, but a lot of area high schools were doing it. The piece was saturated,” she said.
The light opera guild hasn’t produced the musical in 29 years.
To be sure, Pasinetti said, the show harkens to a different time. The story is brighter and more innocent than what audiences often see now, but it was also innovative and put in motion a new direction for musical theater.
“It was the first Broadway show to merge the acting, singing and dancing to forward the story,” she said.
Before that, musicals were largely about gags and cute girls showing a lot of leg.
“All the shows opened with some big bang number,” Pasinetti said. “This show opened with an older woman churning butter. There was no song, no anything, which was novel in its day.”
The musical was based on a play called “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which Pasinetti said was only so-so.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, she said, weren’t even sure they could turn the story set in farm country just before Oklahoma gained statehood into a commercially successful piece. The original title of the show wasn’t “Oklahoma!” but “Away We Go.”
“But then the song ‘Oklahoma’ was such a hit with the audience, they renamed the show,” Pasinetti said.
It was a huge hit almost from the beginning and added several popular songs into the American songbook, including the title song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “People Will Say We’re in Love,” which became kind of a theme song for the future Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip.
“People would play it wherever they showed up,” Pasinetti said.
“Oklahoma!” debuted on Broadway during World War II and became the go-to show that American politicians brought foreign dignitaries to see.
“There were lines around the block,” Pasinetti said.
The show has undergone several revivals since 1943, though the director said she wasn’t a fan of the latest version, which uses sparse staging, has a darker tone and features a cast of 11 actors.
The guild’s production follows a more traditional path, is cheerier and has a cast of 50 with a 20-member orchestra.
It’s a big show, though not the biggest version of it the guild has ever done. The 1960 guild production had a cast of 100 and during one of the dance numbers, two of the dancers fell off the stage into the orchestra pit.
“They landed on a trombonist,” Pasinetti said. “Nobody on stage really noticed and thank heaven nobody was hurt.”
That big of a show isn’t really how musicals are done these days, and Pasinetti said tackling this kind of production wasn’t to be taken lightly.
“I’ve always said that I didn’t want to do this show again unless I have the dancers. This is a show that dances.”
The director said there was no shortage of people who could dance, but what kind of show players want to be a part of in 2019 seemed different to her than what they wanted in 1960 or 1990.
“Everybody wants to do it all,” she said. “If they can’t get the big role, they’ll just go somewhere else.”
Older shows, like “Oklahoma!” have only a few major character roles, but lots of roles for dancers and chorus.
“Everybody wants to be that triple threat,” she said.
Not every show needs that, however. There are no small parts, as the saying goes. Every role is needed even if it isn’t center stage.
“Oklahoma!” has plenty of big numbers and splash, but Pasinetti said it’s not the same spectacle as some of the more modern musicals based on films or cartoons.
Audiences love them, she acknowledged, but the director wondered for how long?
“Some of those just don’t hold up,” she said.
“Oklahoma!” has endured because it was written by the best of Broadway, she thought. It’s stood the test of time — not unlike the Charleston Light Opera Guild.
“It’s the perfect show for a 70th anniversary or any anniversary,” she said.
Note: Saturday, November 23, a special anniversary production and celebration gala will be presented with the show at 2:00 and dinner and dance to follow. This production will feature the 2019 cast with cameo appearances by returning cast members from the 1960, 1971 and 1990 Guild casts. Tickets for the show and gala are $100.