When Bill Rauch became artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007, one of the first things he did was to validate my deep love for musical theater by staging The Music Man.
That was at a time when musicals were essentially unheard of at the festival. Some mild grumbling was heard when audiences saw the shyster Harold Hill trying to seduce Marian the Librarian right there in the Bowmer Theatre, where non-Shakespeare fare was more likely to be by Anton Chekhov or August Wilson than Stephen Sondheim or Meredith Wilson.
Rauch wasn’t deterred. “The American musical is our country’s largest contribution to world drama,” he told me in an interview soon after. “It’s important for us to look at that canon.”
And look he has. Since Music Man, OSF has staged My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, Head Over Heels, The Wiz, Pirates of Penzance, The Yeoman of the Guard and Into the Woods. In 2019 it will put on Hairspray.
So it’s fitting that Oklahoma! is, in a sense, Rauch’s swan song at OSF — the last musical he directs before departing next year to become the artistic director at the Perelman Center, a new theater being built at New York City’s Ground Zero.
For me, musicals used to be a guilty pleasure. When I was a kid growing up in L.A. I was entranced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s shows (which I saw in those days only in the movie versions) like Carousel, The King and I and Oklahoma! Even though I loved them I considered them sappy and quaint, with syrupy romantic themes worthy of no more serious attention than, say, an episode of I Love Lucy.
Ah, the arrogance of youth (and the superficiality of Hollywood, which dumbed down the movie versions I saw).