New Yorkers started hearing the buzz about Oklahoma! last year, as yet another production from the acclaimed St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, began making its presence known. The Sexy Oklahoma! The Oklahoma! with blood and darkness, a hard slap at the very notion that making America great had something to do with going back in time.
Now on Broadway in an immersive presentation at Circle in the Square, Oklahoma! is nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Revival/musical and, for Daniel Fish, Best Direction/musical. (For the complete Tony nominations list, go here). Critically lauded, the production is a hit with audiences as well, playing to standing-room-only crowds week after week.
Deadline spoke to Fish recently about the production (which began in workshop at Bard College in 2015), and about the origins of his ideas for this staggering re-interpretation of a beloved classic musical.
Oklahoma!, directed by Daniel Fish, is playing at Circle in the Square. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Let’s talk a bit about your background as a spectator of theater. You grew up in New Jersey, right?
Daniel Fish: I grew up in Jersey and I started going to the theater very, very young, and in fact, went to see a lot of shows at Circle in the Square where Oklahoma! is now, starting in I think, 1977, when I saw a play called Loose Ends there. I went to the theater all the time, and I saw everything from Broadway shows to Andrei Serban’s work at La MaMa. I think in some ways, although I didn’t set out to do this, but as I was watching Oklahoma! the other night, I thought, Oh, this kind of feels like what I remember going to Broadway shows was like. I don’t quite know exactly what that means, but there’s something about the transaction that’s going on between the audience and the stage. I was happy when I felt that the other night.
Deadline: Are you thinking just in terms of interaction? Excitement?
Fish: It’s kind of a vibe. It’s hard to put my finger on, you know. It’s something about the audience needing to be there, not a kind of obvious audience participation, but just a kind of presence that’s being asked both of the actors and the audience that feels like there’s nothing standing between, there’s not a of interference and that the audience has to do a little bit of work, and the actors have to do a lot of work, and that together, by the end of three hours, they’ve all been through something together, and I think that’s the thing that, when it happens, excites me when I go to the theater.
Deadline: I’m curious to know if the end of Oklahoma!, when there’s the exuberant, seemingly free-style performance of the title number that closes the show, if the performers perform it the same every night? Does the performance depend on audience reaction at all?
Fish: The structure of it is the same. There’s always a kind of intensity to it, and I mean, it’s kind of a task they each have to sing it individually, in a way that feels necessary for them to sing it at that particular moment. So it is always the same, but of course might be different a little bit from night to night. And you know, sometimes I think it’s a little strange when the audience is singing and clapping along with that final Oklahoma! after there’s just been this murder. At first I was really thrown by that. I thought, Oh, wow, that’s kind of crazy. So I think that might inform how the cast does it, but to be honest I don’t think it varies a whole lot night to night.
Deadline: I suppose I was curious because each performer’s performance of that final number seems unique, true to each character, rather than, say, a unified chorus.
Fish: That’s intentional, and if the show’s working, you should feel like it’s different tonight than it is any other night. It should have that feeling of crafted spontaneity to it.
Deadline: Had you ever seen a production of Oklahoma! before?
Fish: I saw the ’79 revival, yes. I can’t say I remember much about it. I was 12 years old.
Deadline: I’m wondering if you’ve ever watched the audience coming in to see your Oklahoma! and thought, They have no idea what they’re in for. I supposed by now the audience sorta knows what’s coming, and the audiences at St. Ann’s Warehouse likely knew…
Fish: The amazing thing about audiences is they’re all different, and they surprise you all the time. There are audiences that are kind of laughing and cheering right out of the gate, and then they start to shift a little bit as they get into the show. There are audiences that don’t start to shift and do that throughout. There are audiences that are really quiet throughout. You know, an audience is a group of individuals, so within a group there are going to be people who respond differently. But absolutely, there were even times at St. Ann’s where I thought, Oh, these people are about to be thrown off a cliff, and that’s a different experience than being gradually led along.
Deadline: For me the moment in your Oklahoma! when it really hit me that this was not a production anyone could have seen coming is when the lights go out during the the “Pore Jud Is Daid” scene, and Curly and Jud whisper the scene into a mic, with the lights out, and we as the audience realize that these characters we’ve always known are not as they seem. Is my reaction typical, and can you, as the director, detect that sort of audience response as it happens?
Fish: I think that’s one of the moments, sure. I think that’s probably one the earlier moments where people have that realization, but I think it happens in gradations, like earlier, when the lights go green, during “Surry.” I think if you’re listening really closely to the show, and you realize the very first line of spoken dialog is the phrase, “Scared me to death,” that word is right there from the beginning. So, you know, it’s all there.
Deadline: If I name certain moments in the show, could you tell me your first thought, and perhaps how the moment came into being? Let’s start with the “Jud Is Daid” scene. The decision to go completely black, except for the live video projection on the wall of the face of the actor who plays Jud, in extreme close-up.
Fish: The idea for it to go dark came kind of like a dumb answer. Like, oh, [the characters] talk about this place [Jud’s ranch hand living quarters], and they talk about it being kind of dark and scary and I just thought, Well, it’s the only place, it’s the only location in the show that really happens somewhere else, you know, everything else is sort of around the house, as it were, and this clearly is a different location. And I just thought, well, what if it really was just dark and we have to imagine what it is like?
So that’s how it came about. And then the video came as an extension of that. If it’s dark, we can’t see them. Well, if we want to see them, how would be do that in the dark? Well, why don’t we put an infra-red camera on them?
You know, I feel like if I know exactly from the beginning why I’m doing something, it’s probably not a very good solution, like it kind of works better the other way, when you get one idea and you don’t know where it comes from so you sort of sit with it and you work it, you refine it and then maybe two weeks or three weeks, or a month, or six months, or in the case of this production, years later, you look at it and go, oh, that’s what it means. For me, when the process works that way, it’s a little better.
Deadline: Then in that specific case, the decision to go dark, and then use infra-red and projections, led to the close-up on Patrick Vaill, who plays Jud, and we see an anguish in his face, and tears, his humanity. I’ve certainly never seen that in an Oklahoma! or a Jud before.
Fish: Patrick has been doing the part since he was a student at Bard College in 2007. He was 22 years old. He was the only person who’s been in every iteration of this Oklahoma!, and a version of that video was in that production. Patrick’s performance has changed a lot. It’s gotten much deeper and much more emotional, much more vulnerable. I mean, I can’t tell you when that happened. It’s something about putting the elements together, right? You put a video camera on the stage, you put those two actors [Vaill, Damon Daunno] together, you put those words and that music together in time and in space, and all those things come together, and they start talking to each other and something, a kind of emotional experience, happens as the result of all of those things being put in a bottle and shaken up.
Deadline: Another moment: the chili. The serving of actual food, on the stage, to the audience at intermission.
Fish: That’s another idea that’s been there from the very beginning. I had this idea about dinner theater, this sort of great American thing, this sort of strange thing, where people go to the theater and eat food. And I just started to wonder, well, what’s that really about? Then I started to think, is there some correlation between people sitting down to a meal and people going to a play?
Deadline: Rex Reed was eating chili in the row behind me. I love that. Okay, let’s talk about the dance, the dream dance that opens the second act.
Fish: The ballet. The ballet is something that’s evolved. That’s probably been the single piece of the show that has evolved and changed the most over every iteration. It’s been significantly different each time. The student production, it was a sort of a crazy thing involving a bunch of 20-year-olds, and it was sort of very rough and expressive and all over the place, and kind of overtly sexual. And then we get to 2015 at Bard, and it was really just that last tableau that you see [the cast] all standing there and the music has preceded it. So it was a shorter and there was no dance.
And then Ted Chapin [president and chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization] and R&H asked me to consider making it an actual dance and I hadn’t seriously considered that, and John Heginbotham, the choreographer and I, did a number of workshops, where we tried things with his dancers, we tried two days with three dancers, and weren’t really finding anything, and we then did five dancers, and then we hit something. When we did it at St. Ann’s we built it around a single dancer with a chorus of about 10, and that’s where the current version of the dream, really came into being. When we took it to Broadway, we got rid of the additional dancers, made it just about Gabby [solo dancer Gabrielle Hamilton], and also, that’s when we added the [projected live] video of the dance. So, it really has been the piece of the show that I think we’ve refined over and over and over again, and it’s changed drastically each time, and I’m very happy with the current version of it. I think it’s the best one.
Deadline: Has the music for the Dream Ballet changed much?
Fish: The music [Edit note: Daniel Kluger is Tony nominated for Best Orchestrations] hasn’t changed a whole lot since 2015. It’s gotten expanded, but it’s been more or less fairly consistent.
Deadline: I have to ask, were you thinking of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock? I felt echoes – future echoes – of Hendrix during the Ballet.
Fish: No, but that’s great. Maybe I was thinking of it, but it was unconscious. I think that’s awesome. I totally buy that. You know, if the show is working, everything is a kind of provocation to any interpretation, and it’s not for me to say whether that interpretation is valid.
Deadline: One of the changes over the development was the shooting of Jud at the end, yes?
Fish: The shooting at the end, yeah, absolutely. When we did it at Bard in 2015, Ted felt it seemed a little bit too much like cold-blooded murder, and that was not how I intended it to be, and it’s not what I thought it was. I thought it was more a kind of almost-suicide in which everybody is made complicit. So we worked very hard at St. Ann’s to make a few adjustments to make it clear that Jud had agency in that action. Ultimately he’s not the person who pulls the trigger. In this version, Jud hands him the gun. Jud cocks the gun. Those two gestures were not there in 2015. Jud brought the gun, but he didn’t hand it to him, and he didn’t cock it, and it didn’t take quite as long.
Deadline: I re-watched the original movie after I saw your production, and was surprised that you’d changed so little. Like that weird deadly peep show device, whatever it’s called. When did you first recognize that all the dark stuff was already in there?
Fish: I think I started to see it when I started working on it. Going into it, I didn’t know it was all there. I mean, I probably had a suspicion, but once I got into the room with the material, I started to realize there were a lot more layers than I knew.
Deadline: I ask because, knowing now that you’ve been watching theater since you were a kid, I’m imagining you sitting there at a young age watching a traditional Broadway musical and thinking, “Wow, that’s really dark and screwed up and I’m going to do it different someday.”
Fish: No, no. When you see a great production of Dreamgirls, it is dark and screwed up, and I think when you see great productions of anything Fosse did, it’s dark and screwed up. So the notion that that’s somehow not part of a traditional Broadway musical, I don’t buy it at all. These were the shows that I was reared on, so I don’t think I’m trying to change it or something. I just think I’m trying to respond to the material in as truthful a way as I can.
Deadline: I guess it doesn’t get much darker than Cabaret, does it? But I don’t know that people watching the movie Oklahoma! would grasp the notion of the small-town community as a mob. The great American community wasn’t a community for everyone.
Fish: No, and [there’s] the need for a community to create an outsider in order to define itself. There’s that Shirley Jackson story of the lottery, where the community gets together annually to choose someone to stone to death, someone in the community, and so there’s a long history [in literature] of this kind of violence and this kind of exclusion.
Deadline: What are some of the touchstone entertainments in your life?
Fish: Oh God. I mean everything at Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne in Berlin, from the ’90s until 2007. I would say Stop Making Sense, the great David Byrne concert film. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, I saw the original production. I’d never seen anger like that on stage like that before. A play called Tracers, which was done at the Public in the ’80s, about a bunch of Vietnam vets, that was kind of brilliant. A production of Streetcar that I saw when I was 18 years old that knocked me out. I gave you more than a few.
Deadline: What was it about Stop Making Sense? You were a Talking Heads fan or something about the movie itself?
Fish: The way the band is introduced. It’s the way it starts so simply and exposes everything, and the way each instrument is rolled out and the lighting is amazing. It’s so inherently theatrical, that movie, and it’s so well staged, that something in there spoke to me.
Deadline: What’s coming up for you?
Fish: I’m doing an opera by Michael Gordon at Bard SummerScape this summer called Acquanetta, and then I’m doing a piece I made in Germany last year, inspired by the Don DeLillo novel White Noise. It’ll be at the NYU Skirball Center in New York, in the fall.
Deadline: One last question. Is there a subject or a movie or a play or anything that you have wanted to create or revisit that you would like to do down the road? Not something that you have planned right now.
Fish: I’d like to do some film work. I’ve always wanted to do Candide. And I think I would really love a chance to work on some Tennessee Williams.
Deadline: I’d love to see your take on Streetcar.
Fish: Orpheus. Orpheus [Descending] is a great one.