'Oklahoma!' comes sweepin' into Lyric Opera

Most, if not all, Broadway revivals of vintage musicals like “Oklahoma!” forgo using orchestras as large as Lyric's — the company is deploying 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra for this show — not only to save money but also because most Broadway theater pits aren't big enough to accommodate that many players, he points out.

“We have been able to re-create the score in a way that I don't think has been done in many years,” he says. “People are going to hear the music in a new way. There's so much warmth and lyricism in it. To me it sounds effortless, as though it always existed.”

The stage was set for Lyric's grand foray into the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon in late 2010, when superstar soprano Renee Fleming joined Lyric as the company's first creative consultant. One of the singer's first orders of business was to propose ways in which Lyric might attract new audiences.

Lyric already was preparing its new Francesca Zambello production of “Show Boat” for a February-March run in 2012. Fleming and former general director William Mason agreed that another vintage American musical theater work should follow, and that “Oklahoma!” was the ideal choice.

It fell to Freud, who succeeded Mason in 2011, to kick the musical theater initiative up a notch: Why stop with just one Rodgers and Hammerstein show when Lyric could present an entire cycle of great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals?

He and Fleming arranged a breakfast meeting in New York with Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, to pitch the project. Chapin was intrigued.

“Musical theater and opera have been doing a sort of do-si-do for years, and I thought the plan made a lot of sense,” he says. Although various Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have been staged by smaller U.S. opera companies, Lyric will be the first major American opera company to present them as a multiyear festival, he adds.

“Putting musicals within the repertory of an opera company, I don't think makes sense. But using the resources of an opera company, especially one as enlightened as the Lyric, strikes me as a very interesting idea.”

With more than 57,000 seats to sell for a single show, Lyric officials are crossing their fingers that the tuneful appeal of “Oklahoma!” will cut across many demographics. In other words, they are betting the farm on the belief that Chicagoans will be as susceptible to the allure of a big, classy, heartwarming musical as Broadway audiences of the 1940s were.

As for Griffin and the other members of the show's artistic team, they seem satisfied that the 70th anniversary production they have lovingly crafted will do justice to one of the iconic masterpieces of the American musical theater.

“Until this version at the Lyric, I have never been around a production of ‘Oklahoma!' where all the required elements were fully present,” Griffin says. “I think our ‘Oklahoma!' will reach down deeper into the audience than this show ever has.”

Lyric Opera's new production of “Oklahoma!” opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and plays through May 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$153; 312-332-2244, lyricopera.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein
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