On March 30, 1943, a middle-aged man named Lynn Riggs sat in a Broadway theater, watching the final rehearsal for Oklahoma! before its premiere the following night. The first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the show was about to change musical theater forever. Before, the form centered around jaunty song-and-dance numbers, without much else connecting them. But in Oklahoma!, the music was woven into the plot in a sophisticated new way. Characters had important conversations in song and expressed a wide range of emotions. As New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson later put it, after Oklahoma!, “the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.”
It’s hard to imagine what Riggs was thinking that night as he watched the show through his dark-rimmed glasses. He was a playwright, and Oklahoma! was based on his 1930 play Green Grow the Lilacs. As Hammerstein told the press, “Mr. Riggs’ play is a wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma! I kept many of the lines of the original play without making any changes in them at all for the simple reason that they could not be improved on—at any rate, not by me.”
Oklahoma! takes place in 1906, the year before the eponymous territory became the 46th state. The story itself is simple and lighthearted. Much of it centers on a cowboy named Curly McLain and a farmhand named Jud Fry, both of whom are in love with the same girl, Laurey Williams. Memorable supporting characters include Laurey’s feisty Aunt Eller and Ado Annie, a girl who gets into trouble with men because she “cain’t say no.”
The characters themselves, and much of their dialogue, came directly from Green Grow the Lilacs. (Aunt Eller was an amalgam of Riggs’ Aunt Mary and his mother, Rose Ella.) But as Riggs watched the adaptation, the differences must have been striking. Gone were the traditional folk songs he’d woven throughout his play. The musical numbers in Oklahoma! had been crafted with New York audiences in mind. Theatergoers sitting a mile from the Empire State Building might have chuckled to hear a cowboy sing about Kansas City: “They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high, / About as high as a buildin’ orta grow.” Instead of square dancing, the actors broke into exuberant dance routines choreographed by Agnes de Mille.
The most profound changes centered on the culture of the characters. Both stories are set at a time when the land these fictional Oklahomans lived on was known widely as Indian Territory—a 31,000-square-mile area where the federal government had been sending the Native groups it uprooted from their homelands in the north and east since the early 1800s. The 1900 U.S. census reported that more than 97 percent of people living in the territory belonged to one of four native groups: the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Creek and the Cherokee. Riggs was a member of the Cherokee Nation, and Claremore—where both the play and the musical took place—was the town where he’d been born.
This is where the musical split with its source material. In a climactic scene from Green Grow the Lilacs, Aunt Eller scolds her neighbors, saying, “Why, the way you’re sidin’ with the federal marshal, you’d think us people out here lived in the United States! … Whut’s the United States? It’s jist a furrin country to me.” The neighbors respond with a chorus of protests: “Now, Aunt Eller, we hain’t furriners.” “My pappy and mammy was both borned in Indian Territory!” “Why, I’m jist plumb full of Indian blood myself!” “Me, too! And I c’n prove it!”
This exchange doesn’t appear in the musical. Instead, the title song features a jubilant chant: “Brand new state, gonna treat you great!” Rodgers and Hammerstein admired Riggs’ play, which had appeared on Broadway for just under two months in early 1931. But they were also New Yorkers putting on a show in wartime. In their hands, Oklahoma! became a patriotic celebration—new stars on the flag, new places for U.S. citizens to call home.
For Riggs, the notion of home was more complicated. He was 43 years old and serving in the Army. He’d left Claremore in his early 20s, but he’d never stopped writing plays and poems about his birthplace. In Riggs’ Oklahoma, it wasn’t easy to be a small-town Cherokee boy who was not only ambitious but also gay.
Riggs was a student at the University of Oklahoma when a bout of tuberculosis drained his energy and left him in despair in 1923. “Nothing at all interests me, nothing gives me pleasure, nothing seems worth doing,” he wrote to his friend Harold Witter Bynner, a poet who had been a visiting lecturer on campus. Bynner urged Riggs to visit Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’d moved the previous year. Riggs took his teacher up on the suggestion.
The trip wasn’t the first time Riggs had left Oklahoma. As a teenager, he’d had a stint working on a cattle train, and he’d made it all the way to New York, where he eagerly attended plays and worked as an extra in cowboy movies. But Santa Fe was a revelation. Riggs met free-thinking writers and painters and visited nearby pueblos, or Native communities. Unlike the displaced Cherokee of Oklahoma, Native American groups near Santa Fe had been living on or near the same land for hundreds of years.
In Santa Fe, Riggs also saw men, including Bynner, engaging in romantic relationships with other men. The young playwright shared their sexual orientation but lacked their confidence. As biographer Phyllis Cole Braunlich put it in her 1988 book, Haunted by Home: The Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs, “Newly freed by the recognition of his own homosexual orientation, he nevertheless was constantly wary of Oklahoma’s judgments.”
“At the time, lots of American artists were being drawn to New Mexico,” says Lindsey Claire Smith, a literary scholar at Oklahoma State University and the editor in chief of American Indian Quarterly. “There was this Indigenous aesthetic, but it was really from a settler viewpoint. So it's fascinating to me how Lynn Riggs entered that world, but he was a Native person.”
From that point on, Braunlich wrote, the playwright “found home to be the source of destructive emotions.” His Cherokee mother had died when he was 2 years old, and his white father disapproved of his ambitions, upholding a rigid, traditional idea of what a man should be. During a visit home in 1924, Riggs wrote to Bynner:
The forces of earth rise to crush the weak things, the tortoises without a protective shell. This later complication (which you know about, dear Hal) would have been little difficulty had there not been earlier, unsolved ones. You would understand if you were here in this squalor and dirt and misery and harshness from which I have never been absent.
Riggs spent the fall of 1925 teaching in Chicago, where he started writing his first full-length play, Big Lake, a tragedy set in Indian country. When a New York theater produced the play in 1927, its program notes praised Riggs for the “winged lightness in the words he puts into the mouths of his young people, a sort of lyricism which is absent from nearly all the plays of our generation.” The playwright had left Oklahoma, but he was still drawing on the voices of its people.
“No one would ever say, ‘You know what’s a really cosmopolitan place? Oklahoma,’” says Smith. “But if you look at how everybody came to be here, you see a lot of different cultures and nations all coming together. That had a profound cultural impact on artists like Lynn Riggs, who took that with them to other locations.”
In 1928, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, Riggs spent the winter in the south of France near Nice, writing Green Grow the Lilacs. He wrote to his funders that his play was about “a vanished era” when people had been “easier, warmer, happier” than in the present day. “Song flourished,” he added, noting that he planned to weave in an array of little-known American folk tunes.
From the edge of the Mediterranean, Riggs tried to conjure up the Indian Territory of his infancy. He described his frustrations in December 1928:
I can’t make—in drama or poetry—the quality of a night of storm, for instance, in Oklahoma, with a frightened farmer and his family fleeing across a muddy yard (chips there, pieces of iron, horseshoes, chicken feathers)—to the cellar, where a fat bull snake coils among the jars of peaches and plums. I can’t begin to say what it is in the woods of Dog Creek that makes every tree alive, haunted, fretful. … I can’t even begin to suggest something in Oklahoma I shall never be free of: that heavy unbroken, unyielding crusted day—morning bound to night—like a stretched tympanum overhead, under which one hungers dully, is lonely, weakly rebellious, and can think only clearly about the grave, and the slope to the grave.
Green Grow the Lilacs opened on Broadway on January 26, 1931, in a production staged by the influential Theatre Guild. Even though it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the show baffled some critics. A reviewer for the American dismissed it as a play for children—a “little kinderspiel”—and wondered “why so much nice writing and handsome producing” had been poured into it. The New York Herald-Tribune described the play as melodramatic, adding, “The stuff with which the author is dealing is, however, so refreshingly of our American soil and his whole intention so interesting, that one was inclined to give him a good deal of leeway.”
By then, Riggs was at work on another play set in Claremore, called The Cherokee Night. In his production notes, he wrote that the story was about the loss of “Cherokee pride, a necessity to Cherokee functioning.” The play, staged at Philadelphia’s Hedgerow Theatre in 1932, ended with a corpse and a pessimistic conversation about the future. Critics panned it—“He has written his play as badly as possible,” complained Atkinson in the Times—and the show never made it to Broadway as planned.
Over the next decade, Riggs traveled between the coasts, with frequent stays in Santa Fe. He mentored theater creatives on both sides of the Mexican border—as Braunlich put it, hoping “to free playwrights, directors, and actors from the tyranny of Broadway.” Riggs’ own livelihood still depended on his work in New York and Los Angeles, where he wrote screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and befriended movie stars, including Joan Crawford. When Bette Davis was spotted taking Riggs to events as her regular escort, the Hollywood Reporter declared that the two were “ablaze.” “When the news leaked out,” a columnist for the same paper wrote a few weeks later, “Bette just laughed, but Riggs, who is a very modest and retiring fellow, almost collapsed.”
By the late 1930s, Riggs had embarked on a real romance with the Mexican artist and playwright Enrique Gasque Molina. Gasque (who also went by the pseudonym Ramón Naya) ended up living in a studio above the garage in Riggs’ Santa Fe home, and he and Riggs later lived together in California and New York. Gasque called Riggs by the pet name Banty; in a 1939 telegram addressed to Riggs at the Plaza Hotel in Santa Fe, he wrote simply, “Thank God for Banty and the stars that shine.”
Riggs and Gasque parted ways in 1941, the same year Riggs’ play The Cream in the Well opened on Broadway to negative reviews. The Times’ Atkinson wrote that the play had left him wanting to ask Riggs “why he is torturing his characters, why he is enveloping the audience in gloom.” The World-Telegram called it “a drab and unmoving story.”
By then, Riggs had written more than a dozen plays, none of which had elevated him to the level of contemporaries like Thornton Wilder or Eugene O’Neill. But in 1942, the Theatre Guild announced that it was planning to adapt Green Grow the Lilacs into a new musical, replacing its folk songs with original compositions. The guild had been struggling financially, and some of its potential investors were unenthused by the idea of a musical about cowboys and farmhands. Rodgers and Hammerstein were also an untested pair; they’d each made a name for themselves with different collaborators, but this would be their first show as a duo. Those who did come forward to invest $1,500 ended up earning back more than $50,000 apiece. (Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to create a string of Broadway hits together. Several of them, including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, also became legendary films.)
The Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation would quickly become Riggs’ greatest claim to fame. For the first time in his life, he had a steady paycheck—$250 a week in royalties, which, when adjusted for inflation, amounts to about $250,000 a year today. Over the course of the show’s record-breaking 2,248 performances, Riggs bought a home on Shelter Island, New York, where he lived with his new partner, a dancer named Gui Machado. One observer said Riggs’ home was now “filled with young men friends who exploited him for his great wealth earned from Oklahoma!”
Even in Riggs’ native state, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical became far more famous than Green Grow the Lilacs. Smith, who grew up in Oklahoma, says she started learning songs from the musical in kindergarten. At Oklahoma State University, where she now teaches, the song “Oklahoma!” is part of every graduation. Even when she was studying abroad, Smith says, “I’d tell people I was from Oklahoma, and some French person would start singing the song.”
When the film adaptation of Oklahoma! debuted in Times Square in 1955, Riggs wasn’t there to see it. He’d died of cancer on June 30, 1954, at Manhattan’s Memorial Hospital. His tombstone back in Claremore would immortalize his reflected glory: “Author of Green Grow the Lilacs, basis for Oklahoma!”
In 2015, stage director Daniel Fish told the Times that in his mind, Oklahoma! was about “a community’s need to create an outsider to sustain itself.” That outsider is Jud Fry, and in most productions, he’s a hulking brute with a menacing scowl. From the first moment Jud appears, audiences typically get the message that he’s worthy of disdain.
When Fish first staged the show at Bard College in 2007, he cast a 21-year-old student named Patrick Vaill as Jud. Tall, handsome and boyish, Vaill took the character in an unexpected direction. Fish staged the show again in 2015, recasting Vaill in the role, and when the production made its way to Broadway in 2019, reviewers were stunned by Jud’s heart-wrenching vulnerability. “This complicates him,” wrote Sarah Larson for the New Yorker. “He could be your high-school crush, with a frisson of Kurt Cobain. … We see his twitching humanity in stark relief, his longing for acceptance and love.”
Oklahoma! has been revived a number of times over the years, including an award-winning 1998 production starring Hugh Jackman as Curly. But there’s never been a Jud quite like Vaill’s. As the actor says to Smithsonian magazine, the director never told him to make Jud more sympathetic. “He would just say, ‘Okay, stop. Don’t do that, please. This line is a question. Just ask this question and really mean it.’”
That’s how Vaill found his own connection to the character. “All these great pieces of writing have the ability for us to see ourselves in them,” he says. “You just have to say the words, and it starts to take on whatever power it has. If you push too hard in a certain direction to make it mean something, it will push back. The bones are so good on this thing. That’s why it never gets boring to work on. Never.”
As a gay man, Vaill found himself identifying with the bewildered way Jud moves through the world, trying to understand why people despise him. “I ain’t good enough, am I?” the character asks in a speech that appears in both Green Grow the Lilacs and Oklahoma! “I’m a h’ard hand, ain’t I? Got dirt on my hands, pig slop.”
In one scene from the musical, the local women hold a charity auction where men can bid on lunch hampers they’ve prepared. When Jud tries to bid on Laurey’s hamper, the entire community joins forces to stop him. “The way we’ve staged it, and I think the way it’s written,” says Vaill, “it becomes a group of people banding together to say, ‘We cannot let this happen.’ They define themselves as a community only when there’s someone who is pushed outside.”
The strangest song in Oklahoma! is “Pore Jud Is Daid,” in which Curly shows up uninvited to Jud’s smokehouse and tries to convince the farmhand to hang himself. Curly promises that if he does, all the people who mock him in life will eulogize him in death. Women will be weeping and wailing. Everyone who once called him “a dirty skunk and an ornery pig stealer” will praise him for having “a heart as big as all outdoors.”
The scene is often played for laughs, with Curly smirking over Jud’s shoulder, slyly comparing the farmhand to vermin and making fun of his dirty fingernails. But Vaill, who is now playing the role in London’s West End, notes that at this point in the story, Jud hasn’t done anything wrong. His only offense has been loving someone the community doesn’t want him to love.
At the end of the song, Hammerstein added a stage note: “Jud breaks down, weeps and sits at the table, burying his head in his arms.” Most versions include only the briefest nod to this direction, giving Jud a beat to sit and brood. But the current revival makes Jud’s reaction impossible to miss. The scene takes place in the dark—even the exit lights switch off—and the two actors speak in quiet voices, using handheld microphones. “Say, that’s a nice lookin’ rope you got there,” Curly tells Jud while poking around. “That’s a strong lookin’ hook you got there. You know, Jud, you could hang yerself on that.”
In the revival, a close-up of Jud’s face appears on a projection screen at the end of the song, and the figures onstage become tiny silhouettes against the backdrop of his frightened eyes. Suddenly, it’s easy to see the scene in a whole new light: the popular boy trying to bully the sensitive, insecure misfit into suicide.
After opening night on Broadway in 2019, a group of Riggs’ nieces and nephews approached Vaill at a party. He was floored to meet them. “They were so struck by our performance and how close it felt to his vision,” he recalls. “That moved me hugely. I took it to mean that some sort of chord had been struck with our version, hearkening back to the roots of this play.”
For a long time, Vaill made a conscious choice not to read Green Grow the Lilacs. “I didn’t want to be trying to straddle both plays,” he explains. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, when theaters went dark, he finally delved into Riggs’ life and work. He was struck by the outsider voice that runs through all of Riggs’ writing.
“When you’re a young gay kid, you don’t know you’re gay,” Vaill says. “You’re just sort of walking around in your life, thinking, ‘Oh, look, that’s a tree.’ And then somebody comes along and says, ‘You're different.’” For Vaill, who has been inhabiting the character of Jud Fry on and off for 16 years, that’s the message at the heart of Oklahoma!: You don’t know you’re different until somebody tells you that you are.
“I think queer people have always watched Oklahoma! and seen it as a really dark, tragic story,” says Karl Jones, a 45-year-old artist and curator who grew up in Tulsa. He remembers watching the play just west of the city at Discoveryland Ranch, known as “the national home of Oklahoma!” Every year, Curly was played by a strapping musical theater performer, while Jud was played by a far less attractive man. “That was the tension of my childhood,” Jones says. “‘They're very obviously trying to make me hate this person because he’s not as handsome.’”
In some ways, Jones’ Tulsa childhood in the 1980s and 1990s paralleled Riggs’ youth more than half a century earlier. “I went to a great school, but socially, I didn’t feel accepted or wanted,” Jones says. “I was this smart kid who graduated and then no one said, ‘Oh, great, come work for our institution.’ It was, ‘Okay, great. Have fun in New York! Because that’s where people like you end up.’”
Jones did end up in New York for more than a decade. There, he worked at a children’s book imprint and developed avant-garde puppet shows in his spare time. One night in 2019, he was in the East Village, putting on a puppet show, when Vaill walked over and introduced himself. Jones recognized the actor right away. “The Oklahoma! connections surfaced as soon as I started talking to him,” Jones says. He and Vaill ended up dating for a while and then became good friends. Their shared admiration for Riggs became the topic of many conversations.
Sometimes, when Jones went home for a visit, he’d find himself looking with fresh eyes at Tulsa’s Art Deco buildings and warehouse spaces. “I’d drive around and be like, ‘If we could figure out some reason for people to move here, someone could fill it up.’ I guess I wasn't the only person thinking that.” The Tulsa oil billionaire George Kaiser had similar ideas. The son of a Jewish refugee who fled Berlin in the 1930s, he’s been pouring his fortune into Tulsa. Along with funding numerous social programs and a new public park, Kaiser’s foundation has become a significant supporter of the local arts scene.
A few years ago, Jones was back for a visit, putting on one of his puppet shows, when the director of the Kaiser-funded Tulsa Artist Fellowship encouraged him to apply for their program, which offers ten annual recipients a three-year award of $150,000 to create art in the city, along with generous stipends covering their housing, health and studio costs. Jones wasn’t sure if he was ready to move back home, but after receiving the fellowship in 2021, he returned to Tulsa full time.
That year, Jones launched a series of events called Goff Fest. He’d always been fascinated by the story of Bruce Goff, a gay Tulsa architect who designed some of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Goff taught architecture at the University of Oklahoma before he was arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” in 1955 and resigned from his job. At Goff Fest, attendees were invited to watch a documentary about Goff, tour homes Goff designed and attend a ball where they dressed in costumes based on Goff’s buildings.
The festival was so successful that Jones expanded it into a larger project called the Center for Queer Prairie Studies. The center’s celebrations and discussions now attract queer people from all over the Tulsa area. At a Thanksgiving event last year that drew 200 people, Jones saw a number of unfamiliar faces. His friend Rebecca Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who identifies as two-spirit (an umbrella term for LGBTQ Native Americans) , pointed out various groups. “Rebecca said, ‘Oh yeah, those are the Creeks. They drove up from Muskogee. And those are the Pawnee. And those [people] drove over from Shawnee’—all these different tribal affiliations and pockets of queer people.”
Earlier this month, the gallery space Jones oversees opened a new exhibition featuring works by past and current Tulsa artists. On the show’s opening night, visitors were invited to show up dressed as their favorite characters from Oklahoma! Artifacts that belonged to Riggs will be on display throughout the spring, some of them on loan from the nearby Claremore Museum of History. And on April 7, the gallery will screen Riggs’ whimsical 1931 film A Day in Santa Fe, followed by a panel discussion with Smith and other experts.
At the heart of these events is something Jones has been wondering ever since he moved back home: “What would it look like if Lynn Riggs had spent his entire life in Oklahoma?” It’s a question with no simple answer, considering that Riggs’ life and work were shaped by his sense of dislocation. But it’s worth wondering what kind of art Riggs might have created if he had been able to feel at home in Oklahoma throughout his life, gathering fresh inspiration from the night storms and the “alive, haunted, fretful” woods of Dog Creek.
Vaill has visited Jones in Tulsa, and he’s moved by his friend’s work. “So much of the art I love comes from the heartland,” Vaill says. “When there’s a sky that big above you, there’s space for imagination. What would happen if the people making that art didn’t feel they needed to leave home in order to survive? What if they felt, ‘I can be here, and I can dream, and I can love, and I can grow old in this place’?”
This is what Jones and his fellow Oklahoma artists are hoping to create. “They’re fostering an environment where art can survive,” Vaill says. “And where art can survive, people can survive.”