When musicals are revived on Broadway—especially older musicals—a new orchestration has become almost par for the course thanks to technology. But tech advances were not behind the impetus for hiring composer and musician Daniel Kluger to pen new orchestrations for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!.
“The jumping off point was, ‘What musicians would be at a pot luck?,’” remembers Kluger about director Daniel Fish’s radically reimagined concept for the show. Now, after an acclaimed Off-Broadway production at St. Ann’s Warehouse, their Oklahoma! begins previews March 19 at Broadway’s Circle in the Square.
Kluger was tasked with removing the tell-tale signs of the typical Golden Age Broadway sound from Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestration, which often meant trading big sections of instruments for purposefully isolated single players.
“A lot of reductions try to get the biggest sound you can with whatever tools are available,” Kluger explains, “but I’ve done things like take a line played by a group of woodwinds and make it plucked on a banjo so that it’s intentionally exposed.”
The result is a dramatically reduced group of musicians—from 28 to seven—that create a sound far more evocative of turn-of-the-century Oklahoma than 1943 Broadway. Instruments like mandolin and steel guitar, not used in the original orchestration, add new colors even as Kluger reduces the total ensemble.
Luckily for Oklahoma! enthusiasts, re-interpreting the experience of this classic musical did not mean changing its material. Fish has left Hammerstein’s original script fully intact, and Kluger has left the score’s underlying musical architecture and arrangements in place even while changing the instrumentation.
“The counterpoint and the harmonic structure of those songs are what gives them their emotional and dramatic impact,” Kluger says. “I see it sort of as a sweater that I don’t want to pull apart.”
In fact, as Kluger studied the score more closely, he gained new respect for Rodgers’ genius as a musical storyteller.
“There’s a tradition in musical theatre writing where you’re trying to, with chord changes, make the audience’s spine tingle at the exact right moment that connects you with the character. What’s amazing about Rodgers’ music is that it does that, but it’s really unassuming. He doesn’t hit you over the head when he’s doing something brilliant.”
As it turns out, sometimes making something new is all about sticking with something old, at least when it’s as timeless as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.