In 2008, New York's Lincoln Center revived a Broadway warhorse: "South Pacific." At the beginning of the overture in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the lip of Michael Yeargan's setting, which had the outline of a tropical island, began to move backward, as waves ebb upon a shore. As it receded, hordes of musicians were revealed, all playing the glorious music of Richard Rodgers. You could see tears in people's eyes. As the Russian formalists used to put it, the familiar was made strange, and the strange made intensely familiar.
To express that more simply, you could see it dawning on hundreds of people, in many cases for the first time, that Rodgers' timelessly emotional music was a great American cultural gift to the world, not so different, really, from the British gift of the plays of Shakespeare. The shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein had fallen victim to changing tastes and pinched budgets. Broadway producers could no longer do them full justice. Amateurs mangled their formative demands. But here was evidence they had nonprofit protectors, determined to restore their centrality to the American conversation. The feeling at the beginning of Bartlett Sher's production was akin to walking for the first time into
the restored glory of a great American train terminal almost lost to winos in the 1970s.
Chicago's Civic Opera House is a very different physical space from the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and moments like that one can't be duplicated. But something close to that feeling should be a goal of the Lyric Opera of Chicago as it ponders how to proceed with its announced five-year producing commitment to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein ("The Sound of Music" is up next, with "Carousel," "The King and I" and "South Pacific" all to follow). Its debut production in this venture, "Oklahoma!" is playing at the Lyric through May 19. It is a solid enough show, with many pleasures, but it also suggests that the Lyric needs to further think through some matters of import.
Musicals and opera companies have complex relationships. On the one hand a portion of Lyric's supporters and subscribers see their inclusion in the traditional repertoire as evidence of detestable commercial creep. What's next down this slippery slope? "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"?
"I Cain't Say No," one of the ditties in "Oklahoma!" is a lively comic number, for sure, but it hardly requires the years of training necessitated to sing, say, "Non mi dir" from "Don Giovanni." A lot more singers can do Ado Annie than can sing Mozart. On the other hand, Broadway aficionados tend to see productions of musicals by opera companies as likely to be stiff, traditional affairs, full of static choruses and heavy settings.
The pervasiveness of that first view at least partially accounts for Lyric's decision to take its deal with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization off the subscription season, which has meant that the Lyric, where the late Danny Newman's "saintly subscribers" long have underpinned the entire enterprise, has had to sell several thousand single tickets (the Lyric says it is "too early" to assess the financial success of the production). The Lyric is selling tickets at significantly lower prices than during its regular opera season, but its main floor seats are still 40 to 50 percent higher than the typical price paid for touring Broadway musicals in Chicago, and at least double what audiences typically pay at the suburban musical houses in Oak Brook, Aurora and Lincolnshire.
Yet much of the talent in "Oklahoma!" can also be seen in those venues. Ashley Brown, who plays Laurey, played for months as Disney's Mary Poppins at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in 2009. John Cudia, who plays Curly, starred in "Les Miserables" at the Marriott in 2008. Paula Scrofano, who plays Aunt Eller, has, happily, been ubiquitous for years. This talent is, well, hugely talented, and the commitment to local artists is laudable. But it's not rare. And the Lyric will have to compete.
One obvious advantage is a full orchestra. That is rare. But it's not a unique niche. The Evanston-based Light Opera Works uses full orchestrations. The Paramount Theatre in Aurora has been cramming its pit full of players, the cost structure for musicians being rather different in the Fox Valley than in the Loop.
So what should the Lyric be doing? For starters, it must embrace its operatic identity. Several roles (Billy Bigelow, Maria, the Mother Abbess, Emile de Becque, Anna Leonowens, the King of Siam) in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon are perfectly suited for singers with the kind of training and accomplishment one does not routinely see or hear. Such singers from the opera world should be engaged, especially if they are willing to work outside their comfort zones. There is room here for a populist celebration of the operatic and, yet more important, also for experimentation in style and interpretation. Why not explicitly explore the boundaries of these two forms? Who knows what revelations might emerge?
These must also be auteur productions, with talented directors given the freedom to explore individual points of view. A piece like "The Sound of Music" is very familiar to most people in the target audience. It has been done very well here, very recently. It won't be enough merely to present these works traditionally all these next years, replete with the big orchestra, the original this and the original that, and all the Lyric prestige. Not enough. These are living treasures: One wants to see directors and designers engage in a singular vision, honoring the past but embracing vital change. One craves grandiosity but also surprise. Broadening an audience does not mean eschewing risk.
Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals require human truth. That said, the Lyric must also celebrate its scale. The huge dimensions of the Civic's stagehouse — where there is room for the cowboys in "Oklahoma!" to ride horses, where there will be space for Maria to sing across the Alps or for us to see the Bali-ha'i Luther Billis sees in his head — are a crucial asset in this enterprise. So is the size of the ensemble and the sound that can emanate, which must dwarf the competition and, along with that arresting directorial vision, command that premium price.
But none of this supersedes the need for the deepest kind of emotional connection. In that regard, musicals are no different, really, from operas.