Songs from Musicals: #28, “Lonely Room,” from Oklahoma!

Honorable mentions:  “Many a New Day,” “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!”

There’s a 12-step program out there for people who are addicted to male solos from musicals, and I don’t know where it is yet, but I’m starting to worry that I need to find it and join it.

It’s hard not to feel for Jud a little bit; it’s hard not to root for him sometimes. Curly and Laurey are obviously meant to be together. Laurey’s family owns some land, and Curly is independent – maybe a little too independent. They go together. The whole town seems to know it. People, we hear, will say they’re in love. Meanwhile, there’s Jud, living in the smokehouse, working as a hired hand on the farm, mostly uneducated, neither charming nor handsome. He is in love with Laurey as well, but, unlike Curly, is not too proud to say so. Jud is menacing; part of that is the rough appearance, and part of it is the sexual awareness which, for the turn of the century, is scandalous. He also goes out of his way to look for a way to stab Curly in the chest, which is kind of hard to excuse.

And yet Jud, from all appearances, wants to do right by Laurey. He cleans up as best he can when he takes her to the box social. Curly sells off his possessions in dramatic fashion to buy Laurey’s hamper (there‘s a euphemism I need to start using), but Jud, on the other side of the bidding war, saved his money; there’s nothing so dreamily American as saving up your money for some romantic purchase, like a horse and buggy. Or a farmhouse. Or Laurey’s hamper.

Jud is a victim of classism, every bit as much as Sweeney Todd or Charles Guiteau. He’s never even made a suitable suitor for Laurey; even without the porn he’s stashing in his hovel, the farmhand would never accede to farmer, and Laurey is destined to be a farmer’s wife.

There’s very little humanity accorded to Jud. “Pore Jud is Daid,” for goodness’ sake, is a song about how much attention Jud would get if he killed himself. I didn’t even know people made those jokes in the 1940s. “Lonely Room” is the one place where he gets to be a person, for three minutes at a time. It is no surprise, based on his condition, that he is willing to kill for Laurey, that he takes refuge in pornography and slovenliness: he is alone. He is isolated from affection and fellowship. Curly’s musical ploy to get him to kill himself is maybe as much conversation as he gets during a day. Pore Jud, indeed.

What makes “Lonely Room” special to me, for there are many male solos and many of them are even about loneliness and emptiness, is the register. Jud is a baritone tending to bass instead of a second tenor pretending to be a baritone. “Lonely Room” is a rumbling song, a song that couldn’t be taken seriously if it were sung by Curly. A wailing tenor would make “Lonely Room” a lament, but a bass-baritone makes the song a promise instead.

Going outside

Get myself a bride

Get me a woman to call my own

It’s not a rousingly feminist sentiment (one looks to the first eighty percent of “Many a New Day” or anything Aunt Eller says for something resembling first-wave feminism), but it is not the crying out of a man who means to accept the fate given him. “Lonely Room” is, essentially, the story of the American Dream in its appropriately frightening birth screams. Jud promises himself that he will win Laurey’s affection, the first step to legitimacy and to proving that he’s “better than that smart aleck cowboy,” who, because this is America, kills the dreamer while the court calls it self-defense.

 

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