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Kevin Moriarty asks himself three questions when directing a show such as Oklahoma!, which Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) will present this month to kick off its 50th-anniversary season.
First, he asks, “Why does this play matter to me?”
For one thing, Oklahoma! is the first musical that the “currently single” gay director ever saw at age seven or eight, growing up “surrounded by cornfields in rural Rensselaer, Indiana.” When Curly opens the show at TUTS by singing “The corn is as high as a’ elephant’s eye,” Moriarty admits it warms his soul.
But there has to be more than nostalgia. What is it about the story itself that speaks to Moriarty?
To answer that question, he says he looked at when Oklahoma! was written and first performed. Its Broadway premiere was March 31, 1943, in the midst of World War II.
“The lives of our citizens were at stake as we considered what [it means to be a] just society,” Moriarty says. “It was not an abstract question. People were giving their lives.”
Armed with that history, Moriarty looked at the show’s setting, the unincorporated Oklahoma Territory of 1906, where farmers, cowboys, and merchants cussed and scuffled before coming together as “brothers” to form America’s 46th state.
“Oklahoma! posited an argument that farmers and cowmen should and could be friends,” he says. “They had to look each other in the eye and envision building relationships and forging together a community that lives in harmony.”
Next, Moriarty asks, “How does the play speak to an audience today?”
At its heart, the show is a love triangle that finds an optimistic cowboy, Curly McLain, and a sullen farmhand, Jud Fry, vying for the attention of local beauty Laurey Williams.
However, Moriarty sticks with his idea of community, characterizing Jud as a loner, “an expression of violence,” and drawing parallels to today’s combative culture.
“We are at a moment at which we have to decide how we are going to get along, and what kind of society we will be,” he says. “Whether we have the opportunity to find love and express that, and to be open and vulnerable, is a real question for us today in America. Jud isolates himself in the shed where he lives, and very possibly has reduced love to the pornographic images he gets from magazines. That speaks to how easy it is for us to retreat to our own ‘sheds’ and live out our days in solitary and isolation instead of making authentic human relationships.”
Oklahoma! succeeds in its presentation because of its “joy, optimism, and hope. That is what was needed then, and that is what is needed now,” says the director.
Thirdly, Moriarty explores how his cast and crew can convey the essence of a story “past the footlights and into the bloodstream of the audience.”
For that, he examined Oklahoma! and found three distinct elements: words, music, and dance. The show’s dialogue is based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II collaborated together for the first time to compose the songs, and legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille staged the dance sequences that propel the story.
“It’s a play with very little underscoring of music; they talk for a long, long time between songs, and then the singing stops for extended expressions of dance,” Moriarty says. “All three [elements] exist fully on their own. If you were to tell me today that you’re writing a show in which all three somehow harmonize, I would think that it would be an absolute mess.”
Moriarty, who is the artistic director for Dallas Theater Center, is confident that his direction will be complemented by his longtime friend Kimberly Gigsby as conductor, and Houston Ballet’s artistic director, Stanton Welch (whom Moriarty has admired from afar) as choreographer.
TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges agrees. “We wanted to make this show the most special it could be by collaborating with one of the top-rated ballet companies in the country, Houston Ballet,” he says.
The production will incorporate Houston Ballet dancers with professional actors from Houston, Broadway, and across the country, as well as students who are training in ballet and musical theater, Moriarty says. “It is one of the most unbelievably diverse casts in terms of age, race, and ethnic background.”
Moriarty remembers “dancing around the house” to the original Oklahoma! cast album, but as a youngster he never imagined making a career in theater. “It didn’t enter my mind. No one I knew had ever done that.”
Instead, the one-time high-school drum major studied music education at the University of Wisconsin, then became a public-school teacher in Minnesota. “The principal assigned me to direct the school play—the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides. I found out how much I love directing. I left Minnesota and went to New York to embark on a new career.”
Moriarty says it “strikes me as mildly funny and kind of ironic” that, without academic training as a director, he led a master of fine arts program in theater directing for Brown University, which is an Ivy League university.
Theater also provided a safe environment in which Moriarty could come out as gay in the 1980s.
“Otherwise, I don’t think I could have come out so openly,” he says. “I wonder if I might have gone into a more traditional profession where I would not have fully owned and expressed myself as a gay man.”
When: September 11–23
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
This article appears in the September 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.