Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! hit the Broadway stage almost 80 years ago. Premiering during World War II, a simple love story between a cowboy and a farm girl told against the backdrop of the establishment of the state of Oklahoma was a great escape for theatergoers. Departing from the glitzy and bombastic musicals of the era, Oklahoma! was scaled down yet beautiful in its storytelling. The instant hit earned a special Pulitzer Prize, has spawned numerous revivals earning Tony and Olivier Awards on the way, a film version earning four Academy Award nominations, and too many to count high school productions. The music continues to have a major presence in musical theatre and “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” are at the forefront of the Rodgers and Hammerstein library. While offering an escape for wartime audiences, certain musicals of the time still snuck in socially and politically evocative themes through hit songs, dance numbers, and lush scores.
Now, for the first time in over 40 years, a First-Class Equity production of the musical tours North America, Oklahoma! is back. Under the direction and reimagining by Daniel Fish, this is not your grandma’s musical. Those darker subjects and subtle storylines are now center stage, brightly lit. Infamously coined “Woke-lahoma,” the revival touring production throws all theatre conventions out the window. You have never seen or heard Oklahoma! like this, ever. Told in the present time, the show is stripped of fancy sets and a theatre orchestra. Without changing the script, the show is thrust into our current social malaise without apology and shoves a mirror at our current nation, bumps and all. Gone are the lyrical sopranos and well-polished baritones, these actors are singing from the heart without pomp and circumstance.
To add to the modern take, the lead characters that generations of theatergoers have come to know are played by multiracial, non-binary, and trans actors. Gasp! Not without controversy, the production has elicited both walkouts as well as standing ovations from brand-new audiences. Is mainstream theatre ready? Ready or not, audiences are seeing trailblazing actors take to the stage as the show swept across the nation. Trans actor Hennessy Winkler made waves in LGBTQ and theatre history with his portrayal of Will Parker, the love-seeking cowboy and Broadway’s everyman in chaps and boots. And for the controversy regarding the show? He is ready for it.
We have a whole new generation now that loves this Rodgers and Hammerstein piece. So even if you’re upset by it, it’s getting people to love classic musical theater. It is not the same orchestrations, but it is the same music and the same story, and I think that’s important. I mean, what is theater if not to challenge an audience, if not to have them leave with questions, if not to stir something up? And if you can take such a classic piece as this and bring it to today and let it touch people in a different kind of way, that is really giving it more life.
Not only is this production of Oklahoma! a milestone for theatre, but it is also a milestone for Winkler on his path as a trans man. This is not his first brush with the musical.
My dad was always a really big fan of Oklahoma!, it’s his favorite musical. And so, I grew up knowing it, watching it, and hearing the music. He was always captivated by how the voices were used in the elements of nature, like how the sopranos in Oklahoma! replicated the wind sweeping down the plane. I grew up as a fan of all these old musicals.
In the mid-2000s I was called back for Oklahoma! as Ado Annie, actually. So, for me to be able to play Will Parker, her love interest, basically the male Ado in the show, has really been full circle as an actor and as a transman. It has beautifully marked my journey in all those ways. I am just so grateful to be a part of it. And to be honest, I am such a Will Parker anyway. Daniel (Fish) made it clear to all of us when we got this job that we were cast because he wanted us in these characters. He wanted us to wrap the characters around who we are and not necessarily become another person. So, we were able to bring ourselves to them.
Bringing Hennessy’s true self to the stage has not been a quick journey. Even as the theatre scene has always been known to push the envelope, trans actors have not been given many opportunities to find their voice on mainstream Broadway.
I came out about 10 years before I started physically transitioning. The reason I held off so long on doing that was because I was an actor. My book was filled with female songs, I was trained as a female, I danced as a female, and I did not want to start all over. I feel like even before a trans person, I am an actor. I am a storyteller. I had done well looking like a woman, I thought I was strong. I had an incredible high belt and soprano notes and was afraid to give that up. All those years and years and years and years of training.
So, that was a whole pick your battles type thing. People would “she” me all the time, but I was going out for female roles. So long as my close friends and family that knew I was a man used the correct pronouns, I was fine with that. I knew what I looked like, and I know the world I’m in. It’s been very affirming now, after having transitioned. This is my first job since and it is the universe telling me I’m on the right track, you know? It’s like they didn’t know I was a man, but they could sense that something (and this has been my whole life) was off. It’s like they could see me even though they didn’t know.
I was never really in any closet. I don’t go around saying, “Hi! I’m trans Hennessy!” I just like to meet people as myself, and if they find out about me being trans or if I can use it to my advantage in this industry, which we’re at a point in time now where I can, I will play that card to get jobs, to get work, to talk about it. You have to take the good things that you can when you’re given a situation like this in the world. We are at a time in history now where it’s just like this weird cusp of a wave and I’m going to ride it. I’ll ride the trans wave. I’ll check your boxes in casting, whatever you want, just give me the job. Because once I show up, I’ll blow your socks off.
Being part of a trailblazing production is not without its drawbacks. While bigger cities like Los Angeles may be more open to trans actors retelling classic theatre in a progressive way, not every city is quite ready. Just look at our political division that’s going on from state to state, city to city. Marking Hennessy’s first national tour, he was completely aware of the danger, even from the stage.
We traveled with a security guard. We traveled through the South in all those states that hold this musical in the fabric of their upbringing. We had chunks of the audience leave after Act One. Good riddance to the people who left. We know why you’re leaving and we probably don’t want you here anyway. We’ve upset a lot of people with this show. It’s been wild ride. But it can also get disheartening sometimes.
We’ve spoken directly to the audience to remind them we are not avatars, but human beings, and they need to stop having a full-out, loud voice conversation in the front row – we’re working. We’ve had people screaming at us as they walked out. But that’s what I was saying about theater, if it doesn’t jostle something in you, what are we doing here? So, while all that sounds negative, I think we all collectively came to this place where it was like, yeah, okay, this is what it is and we know what we’re doing and what we’re here for. We have a story to tell and we are gonna tell it. And if it pisses you off, then you can leave. And hopefully, ideally, you’ll question why it pissed you off so much. But, you know what? Those were also some of the most powerful places we were in because I’d have young trans guys in the middle of Alabama emailing me being to say, “Oh my God, this, this musical saved my life.” Or like, “I can’t believe that you’re up there doing this. I never thought it was something I could do,” or “I saw myself up there.” That’s worth all the walkouts, that’s worth a whole theater of walkouts.
Headlines for the show have quickly picked up and highlighted the presence of trans actors. While Hennessy is lauded for his charm, stage presence, and skill, he is often categorized as being trans first. Does he ever feel overshadowed by the use of his personal labels when it comes to his profession?
My trans advocacy and queer advocacy comes in the form of “if you ask me about it, I want to talk about it.” I decided that at the beginning of this tour. Also, for me as a trans man, trans male erasure in the industry is a real thing. A lot of people don’t know we exist. They know that our sisters exist, and so I’ve really revelled when people do their research and find out that I’m trans and mention that, or when they ask me about it, I love it. It helps me feel seen. I’ve taken the opportunities as often as I can to talk about it. I’m proud to be a trans man. I’m on a Broadway tour and I would love to see what I’m doing open up doors for other trans masculine and trans male actors trying to do the same thing that I’m doing. If you come to see the show, you’ll see that I’m a professional actor, that I show up. But trans-masculine representation is something that I really hold dear to my heart. And I’m honored to be a voice of that to extent I can.
Who can say how quickly a production like this one will inspire other productions to cast trans actors in mainstream roles. Who can say how Oklahoma! will affect other classic presentations of shows, or even how high schools start to present the show. In the words of Oklahoma!’s hero Curly, “Country’s a-changin’, got to change with it.”
For more information about the show, head to OklahomaBroadway.com
Follow Hennessy on IG: @HennessyHaole
[Photos courtesy Hennessy Winkler]
Last modified: December 1, 2022