The 91-year-old de Lappe hops up from her chair and stoops, bowing low and dusting the air with her hands as if foraging through invisible topsoil. “The lyric says, ‘We know we belong to the land,' and this show is exactly about that, the land,” she adds, lowering her voice to an almost reverential chant. Her “Oklahoma!” is more John Steinbeck than John Philip Sousa. “It shouldn't be done the way they've sung it in nightclubs for years,” she says, waving her arms above her head in mock imitation.
She is not a musical adviser on the show, mind you. But as a dancer who performed in the first national company and became choreographer Agnes de Mille's longtime friend and designated expert, she's here to choreograph the revival opening May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, one in which authenticity is a top priority.
We think we know “Oklahoma!,” the first of the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnerships that, with its 1943 premiere, transformed musical theater. But with rare exceptions — Trevor Nunn's London/Broadway revival comes to mind — our memories are fogged by decades of watered-down productions and jingoistic oversimplification. “It's far more sophisticated than it looks,” said Gary Griffin, who's directing this revival for the Lyric. “And it has great soul. I find it very soulful.”
Veteran director Griffin, who staged Stephen Sondheim's “Sunday in the Park with George” last fall for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, likens his restoration process this time to the meticulous care given the Georges Seurat painting at the Art Institute of Chicago that inspired that musical. “The painting has faded, and when they restored it, they worked diligently to make sure the colors were exactly the same ones that he had painted,” Griffin says. “That's what we're doing, trying to find those same vivid colors, the way they were originally.”
On Monday, during rehearsal of the square-dance-inspired moves of “The Farmer and the Cowman,” the dancers finish and scatter to get out of the way. “Don't clear the floor,” de Lappe tells them. Later, she explains it makes the show look robotic and artificial. “If they race from the floor, it looks like, ‘Now, we've done our dance, and now we're going to get out of the way for the acting.' But if they stay and linger, it's more like they're real townspeople.”
That finesse, that detail, is what de Lappe is on hand to ensure and flesh out. “Agnes was a wonderful actress and also a great comedienne,” de Lappe says. “So a lot of her ballets are very funny. She knew ballet and modern and folk dance. But what I love about it is that it's all motivated by acting. There are no show-off steps, unless someone in the plot is showing off. It's honest and true. When I worked on a revival of ‘Carousel' for the Houston Opera, the singers and players would stand in the wings or outside the studio and watch, and some of them told me, ‘I've never seen dancing like this in a show or opera before.'”
“I think over the years, people didn't know the choreography or they started improving on it,” she continues. “But somehow or other, the shows never got better. They're missing something. They're empty.”
In dance circles, de Lappe is now very much a living legend. Though shorter than the dancers she's now coaching (“I started out 5 feet 3 inches but now I'm down to 5 feet”), she boasts vast experience with some renowned ballet and musical theater choreographers of the 20th century. Beginning at age 9, before ever meeting de Mille, she danced with the troupe of Michel Fokine, who'd been a mainstay of the Ballets Russes. During de Lappe's time with him, his company would perform a musical during the summer, with a ballet spliced in during intermission. “I learned how to act from Fokine's ‘Prince Igor' and ‘Scheherazade,'” she says. “But we also took tap and kick routines. The Russians were all trained in folk dancing.”
De Lappe took class at the famed Ballet Arts school at Carnegie Hall, where she encountered major mentors, including de Mille. “There weren't enough students to have a children's class, a medium class and a stars' class, so if you were good enough to be in the advanced class, you could be a star or only 8 years old.”
“Oklahoma!” brought de Lappe to de Mille's attention. De Lappe also auditioned for “The King and I” and wound up creating the role of Simon Legree in “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Jerome Robbins' tour de force and ballet within a musical — one of the most distinctive dance segments in the Broadway canon. “That's also me in the movie, though I'm not credited,” she says.
But she left that hit show when de Mille offered her the top female dancer role in “Paint Your Wagon,” which didn't run as long but gave de Lappe wonderful dancing and cemented their professional allegiance. “Dancing was almost half of the production,” she remembers. “James Mitchell and I stopped the show with the rope dance, the first thing we did.”
She's now working on a revival also faithful to that original, she says. In 2007, she received a special Tony Award for replicating Broadway dance.
“For all its size, ‘Oklahoma!' is spare,” Griffin says. “You have to be very clean and specific and find the three right gestures for each song and not do 20. These links to the original intentions are all going to be lost soon, and in a piece like this, you realize how important they are. I learn something from Gemze every day.”
Lyric Opera's production of “Oklahoma!” runs May 4-19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$153; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.