By Koye Berry
Norb Joerder, director of Theater of the Stars’ (TOTS) production of Oklahoma!, wants audiences to experience the show as if it were the first time. The audience will see Agnes de Mille’s original Broadway choreography, set on the dancers by choreographer Gemze de Lappe, a de Mille protégé. “We’re striving to go back to that original production, but with a new, young cast who’s probably never done this older version.”
Joerder, it turns out, is a de Lappe protégé. The two met when the young Joerder was cast in a production of Oklahoma! at the Municipal Opera Association of St. Louis, where Joerder had spent every summer since the age of seven doing “10 shows in 11 weeks.”
This production will feature 10 to 12 local children, a hallmark of Theater of the Stars shows, and a policy that resonates personally with Joerder. “That’s how I started,” he explains. As Joerder learned the original choreography from de Lappe, so this new crop of aspiring actor/singers and dancers will learn de Mille’s movements from him as well.
Joerder hopes this production of Oklahoma! will give audiences a fresh look at what it means to be American. “[It] is the feeling of young America,” he says, pointing out that the world of the play feels very different from the politically divisive times in which we live.
“The musical always will be an important American tradition,” Joerder says. “It’s so American, one of our quintessential contributions. No one does it as well as the Americans.”
He should know. Norb Joerder has toured extensively through Europe, the U.K., Australia and the United States; staged productions for Broadway and regional theaters; and directed greats such as Jerry Orbach and Robert Goulet. A full-time New York resident, Joerder isn’t daunted by the rigors of world traveling. Laughing, he states, “I find it wonderful. I’ve been around the world with shows. It’s almost like paid vacations.”
Oklahoma! – arguably the most American of American musicals – has lured Joerder back to Atlanta to work with TOTS, for which he has staged more 10 productions, including South Pacific and Camelot. Working in Atlanta is “always like going home,” he says. “The Fox Theatre is such a wonderful theater. Atlanta audiences are so responsive.”
Creating stage magic is costly, however. When asked about the current state of musical theater, Joerder says economic risks have made conditions necessary to create new work difficult. “Unfortunately, there’s not enough room because it’s so exorbitant to mount a new musical. People don’t want to lose millions of dollars.” The task of developing new work often falls to regional theaters, like the Alliance, which has developed two Broadway-bound musicals in recent years, Aida and The Color Purple (playing the Fox in July and August).
Despite its inherent difficulties, Joerder remains optimistic about the art form. “Musicals can be very cost-prohibitive, but they will always be there. The new shows with rock scores are exciting, bringing in young audiences.” One way or another, Joerder knows the magic of the musical will rise to meet whatever challenges it may face.
In the meantime, reviving classics like Oklahoma! allows Joerder to share his enthusiasm for the form with new audiences. And introduce them to landmark productions that, when they debuted, were groundbreaking. “It’s the first show with a 15-minute ballet in the first act,” he explains.
Theater is a craft traditionally handed down from generation to generation. In sharing de Lappe’s vision of de Mille’s work, Joerder is bringing a proud tradition of mentorship full-circle, and sharing a bit of the musical’s magic that he fell in love with as a child.
Oklahoma! plays The Fox Theatre June 19-29.
Koye Berry is a writer/musician with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Maryland’s Loyola College.