My shoes produce the sound clip-clop, which echoes throughout the stairwell as I descend the stairs backstage. I hear my dog’s cries when I enter the hallway along with my dad’s frequent, annoyed hushes trying to calm her down. My shoes slip on the tile floor as I spin around; the full skirt of my sky-blue dress lifts up around me, and my layered petticoat shows. I enter the holding room where my dog Carmel is waiting, her whimpers quieting down as I lift her up and carry her to stage right. Careful not to rip the antique dress, I shift her around in my arms, and we prepare to go on stage. I finally receive my cue. The lights go up: I stroll onto the stage, look around in awe and curiosity, and transform myself completely into Dorothy.
“Look, Toto! There’s a scarecrow. Maybe we can ask him,” I say, striding over to the orchestra conductor, who is dressed as a scarecrow in a field of musical instruments. “Hey, Mr. Scarecrow, do you know the way to Topeka?”
A big, booming voice replies from the speakers, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Where are we?”
And with that line, the conductor cues the orchestra, , and the first bars of the overture for Oklahoma! begin.
Madison West High School preformed Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II the spring of my junior year. Along with being cast in the ensemble, I was in two short scenes called olios, like the one I describe above in which Carmel and I open the show. I played Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and my dog was Toto in this short, fictitious clip. The scene took place before the Oklahoma! overture was preformed, and the director wanted it to be a way of introducing the audience to Oklahoma! It was a quirky way of setting the scene as the Oklahoma Territory in 1906.
Oklahoma! requires a leap of faith and understanding from the audience because it deals with many difficult topics with the predicable insensitivity of the early-twentieth century. However, it shows a world full of rich and vibrant characters, who are happy with life, dedicated to the land they work and subsist on, and excited for the future. The line “We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand” in the song “Oklahoma” displays each character’s enthusiasm and steadfast love in this musical (Hammerstein II, Rodgers). This one line incites in me a deep passion for a place I have never even been and a time more than one hundred years in the past; it proves how moving and touching this musical and any musical can be. Theater has the power to transport people to another world and time, expose them to new ideas, and leave a permanent mark on their lives, just as Oklahoma! transformed me through the rehearsals and performances.
Though there are many famous songs from the musical’s score, the title song “Oklahoma” is one of my personal favorites. It is performed towards the end of Act II after Curly and Laurey’s wedding. In a broad sense, the characters sing about Oklahoma becoming a state, which is a general theme throughout the musical, and their hopes for the future. However, the reason I love this song is not only the message but the actual notes and melodies. The harmonies and movement between notes cause one to believe they are actually in a field of wheat. The song transports not just the audience but also the singers off the stage and to the Oklahoma Territory. The song’s happiness is infectious, and it becomes impossible not to beam while singing it.
“Oklahoma” sounds beautiful when one listens to it, but it is technically extremely difficult to sing. At times, the song may have an eight-part split and swift dynamic changes. I remember it being one of the songs the cast had the hardest time learning. As a first soprano, I sing the highest part in songs. It is my favorite position because of the chance to sing high and expand my range. First sopranos also usually receive the melody because the higher notes generally will be heard over the lower harmonies. Due to this, there are often fewer first sopranos singing the extremely high notes than people with other parts. With “Oklahoma,” the notes push a person’s range mainly because of the amount of time spent in the higher register using head voice. If not done correctly and without a proper warm-up, the song will exhaust a voice rapidly.
I remember one rehearsal quite clearly, particularly the warm-up, even two years later. It was a fortnight before opening weekend and the first time I brought Carmel to rehearsal in order to practice our scene together. A generally accepted rule in theater is that only animals trained to be in live productions should be on stage. There are numerous considerations and dangers to having animals preforming. There are the issues of cast and animal interactions, transmission of diseases, and danger of injury to both parties, to list just a few. My major concern with Carmel was not any of the aforementioned because she was only on stage for a short period and interacted solely with me. Rather, I was concerned about her reaction to the stage lights, the sounds, and the audience. The technical effects can be stunning for any person new to theater, but with a dog’s heightened senses, it could be harmful to them. Given this, I had no idea if Carmel could even be used in the production; it all depended on her reaction to these new surroundings.
In her best interest, I decided to allow her a half-hour to explore the new environment before her first rehearsal. I carried her in the side door of West’s auditorium. The minute I set her down, she became a kid in a candy store. Every smell and object became a strange and foreign thing that must be investigated. It was probably quite comical watching a sixteen-year-old girl get pulled around by a seventeen-pound cockapoo; she wanted to explore anywhere and everywhere at the same time. Initially, I limited her to the empty house and surrounding hallways as the stage crew finished up their building for the day, but the stage quickly became her biggest source of fascination. By this time, other cast and orchestra members were trickling in, all curious as to why a dog was at rehearsal. With the addition of new people, Carmel’s apprehension began to appear, and my sole focus became trying to calm her down.
Strangely enough, Carmel was drawn to the sound of the orchestra, who was warming up and rehearsing numbers behind the tan curtain that bisected the stage in half and hid the orchestra from view. Before I even figured out what she was doing, Carmel had burrowed her way under the curtain and into the strings section of the orchestra in her effort to sniff every single inch of the space. There is that certain, recognizable, cacophonous way an orchestra stops when it has not been actually cued to stop—sometimes featured in comedic skits—but , until that night, I had never realized a group of musicians could actually produce this noise outside of a performance.
Instead of the laughs that would usually accompany this event during a show, all I heard was, “Oh my god! It’s a dog!” And a chorus of replies, spanning from, “It’s so cute!” to the orchestra conductor shouting, “What are you all doing?” Looking back, it was quite humorous, but at that moment, my focus was on trying to lift yards of dirt-laden tan fabric to remove my dog from the strings section.
After catching Carmel and offering my profuse apologies to the conductor for interrupting their practice, Carmel found a new fascination in the form of the pile of loose hay on stage left. If I had let her, she would have had a good roll in the hay like two of the main characters in the show were supposed to.
Though her intent was to explore more, the musical director had started to call the cast on stage for vocal warm-ups. As I corralled her to sit next to me, Carmel’s high-pitched whining created a distraction for the rest of us trying to sing scales in tune, so my only option was to do warm-ups with her in my arms to calm her down. That night, the music director wanted to focus on correcting the harmonies in “Oklahoma,” which required the sopranos to sing the melody multiple times. The problem was that I could not set Carmel down without her crying. Although Carmel only weighs seventeen pounds, after a ten-minute warm up, even the smallest of dogs can become quite heavy. I remember standing off to the side on stage right, practicing scales and receiving sympathetic glances as my arms numbed. Even though I sang so high into her ears, she did not seem to mind it because she was being cuddled so close to me.
Since that day, every time I hum or listen to “Oklahoma,” it reminds me of this rehearsal, which never fails to bring a smile to my face. It may have been stressful to deal with Carmel during the show, but I would not trade this experience for anything. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to open the musical with my best friend. *
Hammerstein II, Oscar and Richard Rodgers. “Oklahoma.” 1943.
The assignment was to share a memory we have that is connected to one particular song. I chose to write about my experience acting in the opening scene of my high school’s musical, Oklahoma! The narrative tells the story of my dog, Carmel, being cast alongside me and focuses on Carmel’s first stage rehearsal and the many hijinks that happened during it.
For this paper, I had to learn how to write in a new genre. I had never composed a narrative before, so it was awkward for me to be writing about a personal experience in a non-analytical tone. The emphasis at my high school was writing argumentative essays, especially finding evidence to support a thesis statement. The storytelling format went against everything I had been taught to do for the past four years in high school on how to draft a proper essay. Using the first person and placing myself as the focal point of the narrative contradicted all of my previous English teachers’ lessons. Writing only became easier as I realized I was not writing an essay but rather telling a story. It should seem like I was speaking the words to the reader, instead of the reader reading them off a page.
One strategy I find helpful for the writing process is creating an outline before starting the first draft. My brain jumps from topic to topic in such a way that makes it hard for others to follow my thought process. The outline helps me gauge how long my work will be and lets me create a basic flow to the paper before I even begin to write anything.
* Carmel was asked to perform as the Grinch’s dog in West High’s production of Seussical in the spring of 2018. Unfortunately, due to health issues, she had to decline the role.