Correction: The original version of this story misstated when Eric Cornell graduated from Union High School. That date has been corrected.
When Tulsans Jay Krottinger and Ryan Jude Tanner first learned about a new version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic musical “Oklahoma!” that was bound for Broadway, they knew they had to get involved.
“There was no way we would not fight for the chance to be a part of this,” said Krottinger, who with Tanner runs Square1 Theatrics, a Tulsa-based company that has helped bring such shows as “Pippin,” “Waitress: The Musical” and “Come From Away” to Broadway.
Former Tulsan Eric Cornell felt much the same way.
“It was one of those shows that ticked all the boxes I look for in a project,” Cornell said. “I like to feel some kind of personal connection to the material, and I like shows that carry a message of social justice, that reflect how a community is and how it could be.”
This new version of “Oklahoma!,” which director Daniel Fish crafted to bring a modern sensibility to this classic musical without changing the show’s score or book, would go on to win the 2019 Tony Award for best revival of a musical.
As members of the consortium of individuals and entities that helped produce the show on Broadway, Square1 Theatrics and Cornell’s Cornice Productions, a partnership with fellow producer Jack Sennott, would take home Tony Awards for their work.
This was the second Tony Award for Krottinger and Tanner; they won a Tony for best revival of a musical in 2013 for the Cirque du Soleil-inspired revival of Stephen Schwartz’s “Pippin.” Other shows they’ve help produce, such as “Waitress” and “Come from Away,” were nominated for best musical.
For Cornell, “Oklahoma!” brought him his first Tony Award. He’s been involved in other Tony Award-nominated shows, such as “Rocky” and “Sister Act.”
“When they announced ‘Oklahoma!’ as best revival of a musical, it was a dream come true to walk up to that stage,” Cornell said. “I am honored to be a small part of the show and grateful to our lead producer, Eva Price, and the creative team for creating such a beautiful and thoughtful production.”
This new “Oklahoma!” quickly became one of Broadway’s must-see shows soon after it opened April 7 following a sold-out run at the St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2018.
Most critics lauded director Fish’s approach, which strips away the lush orchestrations of the original for a seven-piece onstage band that transforms Rodgers & Hammerstein’s songs into country and bluegrass inflected tunes, that features nontraditional casting and which brings out the darkness and violence inherent in the story.
As Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote in his rave review of the show, Fish strips the musical “down to its skivvies, discarding the picturesque costumes and swirling orchestrations and revealing a very human body that belongs to our conflicted present as much as it did to 1943 or to 1906, the year in which the show ... takes place.”
David Rooney, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, said, “What’s significantly different is that a show normally interpreted as a celebration of the American spirit here unearths the darkness beneath the sunny surface — the blood in the soil of the heartland and the fear-based hostility toward outsiders that continues to fester today.”
Not everyone has been taken by the new vision for “Oklahoma!” Rex Reed in the New York Observer dismissed the show as a “gimmicky travesty,” while Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post said, “Everything you cherish about this classic has been taken out behind the barn and shot.”
However, the Oklahomans who helped bring this “Oklahoma!” to Broadway said the radical approach was what drew them to wanting to be part of the production.
“That should be the purpose of any revival — to make something that is new,” Krottinger said. “That’s what drew us most to this ‘Oklahoma!’ — that without changing a word of the libretto, this show had been reimagined in a way that is every bit as revolutionary today as ‘Oklahoma!’ was when it was first performed in 1943.”
“Without the elaborate dances, the huge orchestra and lighting, this show feels more singular and one-on-one,” Tanner added. “People can really identify with the inclusiveness of the show, as well as the exclusivity — the way some people are kept outside.”
For Cornell, “I loved how this production revisited a show I know very well and discovering all kinds of new things within it. That was what was really exciting about this ‘Oklahoma!’ ”
Cornell, a 2002 graduate of Union High School, said he was a “theater kid” growing up, taking part in productions at school and with Theatre Arts, but realized early on that being on stage wasn’t where his talents laid.
He went to Emerson College in Boston to study theater management and became fascinated as much by the business aspect of theater as the artistic.
“Tulsa may have solidified my love of the arts,” he said, “but it was in Boston where I learned that art and business in theater can work together.”
One of Cornell’s first jobs was as associate company manager for the national tour of “Wicked” when it came to Tulsa for the first time. He worked with various other companies, on shows ranging from “Hairspray” and “The Producers” to “Anastasia,” before going independent in 2016.
In addition to “Oklahoma!”, Cornell was also a producer on two other 2019 Tony Award nominees, the plays “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
Tanner and Krottinger work with several nonprofit organizations in Tulsa, such as the Red Ribbon Gala, which they chaired in 2016.
Krottinger, a Broken Arrow native who currently serves as interim artistic director for Theatre Tulsa, has been involved in the performing arts in one role or another for much of his life.
In 2006, he was doing summer stock at the Surflight Theater in New Jersey, where one of his colleagues was Ali Stroker, who would win the Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical for her historic performance as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!”
Stroker, who lost the use of her legs after a car accident at age 2, became the first performer in a wheelchair to be nominated for and win a Tony Award.
“We worked together throughout the summer,” Krottinger recalled, “and the theater wasn’t (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. They had put up some ramps here and there, and Ali asked me to help her get to the women’s dressing room. Well, the ramp wasn’t very stable, and one of the wheels of her chair caught on the ramp and I basically dumped her out of her chair.
“I was mortified,” Krottinger said, “but Ali was laughing her face off. She said, ‘Don’t just stand there, help me up.’ That’s why the thing I’m most proud of is her winning the Tony, where she was able to show the people who might not believe they can achieve their dreams, that they can.”
“Oklahoma!” will close on Broadway in January 2020, and the national tour is scheduled to debut in Oklahoma City that fall. Tanner said Square1 Theatrics is working to see that the tour includes a stop in Tulsa.