My vision blurs.
I know what’s coming. I take a deep breath ready to burst into song.
“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.”
With those opening lines, I hear my father’s tenor voice on a Sunday drive, past the city limits and suburban neighborhoods, to the farmland on the outskirts of town.
We’d buy fruit and corn from a stand on the road.
“The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.”
He sang like it was a love song.
I suppose to him it was.
His expression of love of all things American, of his adopted country, his new world, his land of possibilities and promise.
He took my mother to see the original Broadway production of Oklahoma on their honeymoon in 1944. She would have preferred opera, Turandot or Manon, with their sad, lilting love songs.
My father loved opera, too, but that was their past.
They were starting a new life together, in their new homeland. What could be more appropriate than this quintessential American musical, a story about pioneers on the frontier, dreaming about statehood, with the titular song, “Oklahoma,” as the wedding song?
My father escaped Nazi Germany in 1936. My mother escaped two years later. They met in the U.S. They spoke German to each other, but not in public. German was the language of the enemy.
My father learned English, in part, through song, his accent barely detectable when he sang. He would break into song as the mood or situation inspired him. I suspect “Oh, what a beautiful morning” reflected and lifted his spirits. He sang it often enough for me to learn it by heart.
I saw Oklahoma last weekend in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). I sang to myself throughout the show. I know all the words from my father. Judging from the clapping, foot stomping, and head bobbing in the audience, other people were singing along, too. I half expected the audience to join in the chorus on a few songs.
The OSF production was an innovative and joyful LGBTQ interpretation of the musical. The leads are same-sex, mixed-race couples, and Aunt Eller is a transgender woman. A different cast than my parents saw in ’44, but the jubilation and romance are all there. The show looks to the future with optimism. You can feel it in every song. I can imagine my newly-married parents felt that, too. When they heard “plenty of heart and plenty of hope” they must have escaped, at least for a few moments, from the world at war to a place where “all the sounds of the earth are like music.”
The OSF show runs through October 27. If you can’t make it to Ashland, you can read about the origins of Oklahoma, the OSF production, and the diversity of the Oklahoma Territory in 1906 here and here. More about the 21st-century update of Oklahoma in the New York Times here.