Western Muscials Myth of wide-open spaces lies behind success of wide-open genre @

March 07, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Over the years American musicals have reaped the benefits (( of the sage advice: "Go West!"

And in the coming months, Baltimore audiences will be able to see three prime examples of the union of the American West and the American musical -- a genre that is itself an intrinsic American art form:

* "Annie Get Your Gun" -- a revival of the 1946 Irving Berlin hit, starring Cathy Rigby as Annie Oakley, begins a national tour at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

* "The Will Rogers Follies" -- the 1991 Tony Award-winning musical biography of the cowboy philosopher, starring Keith Carradine and presented as a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza, will play the Lyric Opera House from May 4 through May 23.

* "Oklahoma!" -- the landmark musical credited with altering the course of musical theater history marks the 50th anniversary of its Broadway opening March 31. More than 750 productions have been licensed for 1993, including the current one at TowsonTowne Dinner Theatre as well as an anniversary tour that is expected to play a one-week engagement at the Lyric in December.

Why does the West make such a good setting for musicals? In the broadest terms, it has the quality of myth; it represents wide-open spaces that not only allow, but even seem to cry out for such flights of fantasy as song and dance; and it is perceived as having a simple, basic underlying moral code.

Those are the qualities of our romanticized vision of the West. "When other countries portray America, they portray a cowboy. That's what symbolizes this country. It's pioneering and it's going against all odds and taming the wilderness. It also feeds into the Horatio Alger theory of going out someplace with nothing and becoming a success, and of course, Annie [Oakley] is a symbol of that," says Susan H. Schulman, director of the revival of "Annie Get Your Gun."

Indeed, in discussing the West it seems appropriate that hyperbole rises rapidly to the surface. "The West is the mythic background of America, and I think that's where we all play and that's where we'd all like to be," says Max Wilk, author of a new book, "OK! The Story of 'Oklahoma!' " being published by Grove Press this month.

The appeal of the fictionalized American West, especially as glorified on the screen, can be traced all the way back to medieval morality plays. "The white hats, the black hats. That's really what it's about. Good vs evil. It's pitting good against evil, and good wins," explains Peter Stone, who wrote the script for "The Will Rogers Follies."

Extending the morality play theory, Schulman points out, "The cowboy is the symbol of Everyman." His classlessness, she contends, is a particularly American trait and a significant part of his attraction.

Resonant and appealing as the West may be, however, a Western setting is no guarantee of popularity. For every "Oklahoma!" there's probably at least one "Destry Rides Again," a 1959 remake of the Marlene Dietrich-James Stewart movie, whose colorful setting failed to compensate for what at least one scholar has called a lack of "tone, wit and melody."

It's also worth noting that while western movies and TV series may share a certain formulaic similarity, the three musicals described at the start of this story are distinct. (One can only imagine what Hollywood would have done in the wake of a smash like "Oklahoma!" -- "Oklahoma II!" perhaps, or "Wyoming!")

Interestingly, although "Oklahoma!" is the oldest of the trio, it was also the most modern and original. Based on Lynn Riggs' play, "Green Grow the Lilacs," "Oklahoma!" is not only the most famous Western musical, but, due primarily to its smooth integration of Oscar Hammerstein II's libretto with Richard Rodgers' score and Agnes de Mille's choreography, this show about pioneers is itself regarded as a pioneer.

"If you ask me why 'Oklahoma!' has lasted 50 years, it has to be because it was the first of its kind that was all of a piece," says Wilk. "It breaks every rule and makes its own."

subhed Not standard fare

Granted, on the surface the show is a standard love story about whether young Laurey will go to the social with upstanding Curly or sinister Jud. However, in "Oklahoma!" all the elements advance the story and develop the characters. And while the precedent for this was established as long ago as 1927 with "Show Boat," the practice was still far from common with most of "Oklahoma!'s" contemporaries, whose tacked-on plots were generally little more than thin, often silly, threads linking a score of highly generic musical numbers.

Furthermore, as Ethan Mordden points out in his book "Rodgers & Hammerstein," "Oklahoma!" covered much wider thematic territory than its lightweight forebears.

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