by: Denise Robinson
The Bible Meets Broadway: Oklahoma
1 John 4:7-11, 18-21; Luke 6:27-30
As I let on earlier, Oklahoma is not quite the musical I thought it was when I selected it as part of “The Bible Meets Broadway” sermon series. To give you some context, “Oklahoma” was the first musical written by the famous duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The original Broadway production opened in 1943 and was a box office hit. It ran for over 2,200 performances and in 1955 was made into an Oscar-winning movie which starred Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs' 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs. Set in farm country outside the town of Claremore, Indian Territory, in 1906, just one year before Oklahoma became a state, it tells the story of farm girl Laurey Williams and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly McLain and farmhand Jud Fry. A secondary romance concerns cowboy Will Parker and Ado Annie, who happens to be infatuated with Ali Hakim, a caricature of a Persian peddler who is a ladies’ man and doesn’t want to marry.
Here’s what I thought I remembered of the musical. Bright skies, a surrey with fringe on top, happy singing, happy people, and happy ever after lives. After all, a musical turned into a movie starring Shirley Jones can’t be bad, right? And we all know Broadway musicals aren’t known for their historical accuracy. People don’t break out in song spontaneously or begin dancing in chorus lines whenever they please. We know musicals have nothing to do with reality. But in preparing for today’s sermon what I didn’t remember was the dark side of Oklahoma. Here’s what I forgotten, overlooked, or perhaps missed entirely because, to be honest, I’m not sure that I had ever seen the musical or the movie in its entirety until sermon prep this past week. Oklahoma was called Indian territory because, beginning in 1830 with the Indian Removal Act, the tribes known as the Five Nations: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole were forced from their ancestral homes in the southeastern U.S. and marched there for resettlement. We know that march as the Trail of Tears. But it didn’t stop there. During the middle to late 1800s, dozens of other tribes were relocated to this Indian territory including the Miami and Potawatomi from Indiana. All of these tribes were added to the Apache, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, Osage, and Wichita who were already living there all along. According to treaty, the 44-million acres of Indian Territory was to belong to the tribal nations forever, and trespass by settlers was forbidden. By 1890, the 44 million acres had been reduced to 25 million, and by the time of the setting of the musical in 1906, it was almost all gone. So, I supposed it’s no surprise that there’s not one Indian in the entire musical. They’ve all just disappeared – somewhere. They are simply removed from view in 1906, in 1943 with the musical, in 1955 with the movie, and ever since. We know that all persons are made in God’s image and loved equally by God and so that view of history is incomplete at best. But this is only where today’s sermon begins.
Based on what I’ve said so far, it’s probably no surprise that my sermon was meant to go in one direction and then took an unexpected turn. The musical opens with the song, Oh What a Beautiful Morning. Surely a song attesting to the grandeur of God’s creation: there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow and the sounds of the earth are like music, and it’s a beautiful morning and a beautiful day. And that’s where my sermon was headed. What I discovered was, as Curly sings the song, his view of the morning has nothing to do with the beauty around him. Curly is on his way to Laurey’s house to ask her to what is called a “box social.” This is a kind of party where the women make up picnic hampers to sell and the men bid on them, all in this case to raise money for the school. Curly is sure that Laurey will say “yes” to his invitation to the social and, so, it’s a beautiful morning and a beautiful day because he’s got this wonderful feeling that everything’s going his way. Until, of course, his plans go awry. Laurey, it seems, feels Curly is taking her for granted and has waited too long in asking her to the social, and so, to make him jealous, she accepts an invitation from Jud Fry, her hired hand. This not only destroys Curly’s beautiful morning, it establishes the tension for the rest of the show. In the meantime, Laurey’s friend, Ado Annie is also caught up in a romantic game of her own, between cowhand Will Parker who wants to marry her and Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler with whom she is enamored. Watching the musical with a fresh eye, it was interesting to see how self-absorbed and narcissistic all these characters are.
It’s fair to say that this 1943 musical hasn’t aged well – with its portrayal of women, foreigners, Blacks, and Native Americans – but that’s understandable. Many books, movies, and musicals suffer from the same fate. The problem is that when it comes to the “oh what a beautiful morning” song, we often view things the same way. It’s’ a beautiful day when things are going my way; it’s not such a beautiful day when things aren’t. It’s an easy trap to fall into. And yet, Scripture tells us that our joy in life comes from circumstances outside of our own interests. Psalm 118 says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And Philippians 2 reminds us we make our joy complete by being like-minded with Christ, having the same love of Christ for others as Christ has for us. V. 3-4 says: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” I personally may experience good and bad during the course of the day, but every day is a beautiful day because it is a day where I experience the grace and love of God.
If that were the worst of it, however, we could call Oklahoma a good musical with some catchy tunes, and move on. But the most disturbing part of the show centers around the Jud character. Jud is portrayed in the original play as a dark and dangerous character, but in the musical and movie he is more of a mystery. Laurey uses Jud to make Curly jealous and it works. Curly goes to see Jud in the smokehouse where he sleeps, and sees a rope hanging in the barn; he gives the rope a tug and notes how strong it is, saying, “You could hang yourself on that Jud.” He then describes how Jud could stand on a log or a chair, put the rope around his neck after tying it tight, fall off the log or chair, and in five minutes or less, with good luck, he’d be dead. Curly then begins to sing “Pore Jud is Dead,” in which he paints a picture for Jud of what it might look like after his death – all laid out to rest with the preacher speaking words over him and folks gathered around weeping and crying. Curly even sings how Jud has been misunderstood in life – viewed as a “mean ugly feller”, a dirty skunk, a pig stealer – but now, in death, has been transformed. People call him “friend” and realize he loved everybody and everything in the world and had a heart of gold. None of these words are meant to encourage Jud or lift him up; Curly is singing them to get Jud out of the way by getting him to think about committing suicide by hanging himself by a rope in the smokehouse. After the song is over, he tells Jud plainly it wouldn’t be a funeral he would want to miss.
After Curly leaves, Jud sits in the smokehouse by himself and sings, “Lonely Room.” In this song, Jud sings how he sets by himself, like a cobweb on a shelf, in a lonely room. Alone in the dark with only a fieldmouse for company, Jud dreams of a time where all the things he wishes for turn out like he wants them to be, a time when he’s better than those who look down on him and where he finds love. But then, as the song ends, the sun comes up and he realizes it’s all a pack of lies. And Curly isn’t the only one who treats Jud this way. In a later scene between Laurey and Jud, Jud recalls a time when he was sick and Laurey brought him soup in the smokehouse. Jud tells her how he remembers everything she ever did for him, how he can’t think of anything else. For just a minute it seems there is a moment of humanity, but then it is gone. Jud says, “I ain’t good enough, am I?” and Laurey responds, “You are nothing but a mangy dog and somebody ought to shoot you.” She then tells him to pack up and get out; she fires him and tells him that if he sets foot on the property again, she will set the dogs on him.
The character of Jud in the musical is a complicated one. On first impression, he’s not well educated, poorly dressed in comparison to the others, rough-spoken and, at times, angry and defensive, even violent. But we are also given insight into his thoughts – of not being good enough, of being looked down on and laughed at by others, of being lonely. And there is truth to that. Laurey uses him, Curly looks down on him, others laugh at him, and no one treats him with anything approaching understanding or kindness. The words of Luke 6:27-31 are noticeably absent: “But I say to you that listen, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.’”
Finally, we come to the end of the musical. A mere three weeks have passed, and Curly and Laurey and Will and Ado Annie have just gotten married. There’s a big celebration and Jud Fry stumbles in, uninvited, unwelcome, and drunk. He gets into a fight with Curly, pulls a knife, and falls on it, killing himself. With Jud still lying on the floor the townspeople quickly find Curly not guilty of any wrongdoing so that he and Laurey can go on their honeymoon. While this is going on, Laurey talks to her Aunt Eller and wonders why this had to happen to them. She asks, “Why did this have to happen when everything was so fine?” Aunt Eller tells her, “Lots of things happen to folks: sickness, their being poor or hungry even; being old and afeared to die; that’s the way it is, cradle to grave.” After those few words of wisdom, with their friends and loved one waving, Curly and Laurey drive off in that surrey with the fringe on top singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.”
I guess you can tell from this morning’s sermon that I will not be watching Oklahoma again any time soon. Perhaps I was disturbed by it because I thought I knew what it was about and I was wrong. For almost the entire musical, everyone has an agenda and everyone seems to be playing a game with someone else. There’s a constant theme of violence under the surface and no tolerance for the feelings of others. In just about every way possible, Oklahoma is in contrast to how we are called to live with others. As Jim read for us from 1 John 4: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Good thing it’s just a musical and nothing like the real world, right?