Emmy-nominated screenwriter Bekah Brunstetter recently visited Claremore, researching for a television show that could premier on the small screen as early as 2021 – a modern-day remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
Assuaging the fears of pop culture enthusiasts tired of regurgitated movies, Brunstetter said, “It’s not necessarily going to be contemporary Laurey and contemporary Ado Annie. We’re trying to make it so much bigger than that.”
The show isn’t much more than a concept at this point, still extremely early on in production.
“A big reason I came to visit Oklahoma is because I wanted to find the story elements of the show in Oklahoma, to build off of what is really going on there right now,” Brunstetter said. “What are farmers going through? What are people who live in the city going through? What are the social and cultural issues that are big in the state right now?”
“We don’t feel super beholden to the plot from the musical,” she said.
In addition to a number of critically-acclaimed original plays, Brunstetter’s major writing credits include three seasons of the ABC family drama “Switched at Birth,” an episode of the Starz series “American Gods,” and the entire NBC series “This is Us,” on which she is also a producer.
She is co-writing the show with John Lee Hancock, whose filmography includes “My Dog Skip” (2000), “The Rookie” (2002), “The Alamo” (2004), “The Blind Side” (2009), “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012), “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013), “The Founder” (2016) and “The Highwaymen” (2019).
One summer in college, Brunstetter and her friends drove from North Carolina to California, with a quick stop in Oklahoma to refill their gas tank. But this time she stopped, got out of the car took a good look around.
“I spent a few days in Oklahoma City, a few days in Tulsa, an afternoon in Claremore and then I drove west through the panhandle, visiting some ranches,” Brunstetter said.
“The word I kept hearing from people was resilience,” Brunstetter said. “It kept coming back to that thematically.”
Resilience showed up in families recovering from tornadoes and floods and farmers overcoming drought conditions.
“I met with a lot of Native American people and went to a powwow,” Brunstetter said. “I just started crying, I was so moved by it. The fact that the songs and dances have been passed down for generations and generations, it felt so human to see they were out there in 105-degree heat and doing these dances and thinking about their ancestors, hundreds of years ago, also doing them.”
“I heard the word resilience a lot from the community as well, how miraculous it is that their culture has survived,” she said.
When people outside of Oklahoma are asked to the describe the state, even now people picture a Wild West atmosphere with not much going on.
“People have this sort of John Wayne narrative locked in their heads,” Brunstetter said. “We want to find out what is really going on in the state as opposed to what we think is going on as a country.”
“I was also struck by how much it reminded me of my own home, North Carolina,” Brunstetter said. “People make judgments about the state, but when you actually got to the state there is beautiful food, beautiful, intelligent people, and lots of natural beauty.”
Over multiple days, Brunstetter saw many features of the state that you miss from the passenger-side window on the Interstate.
“It was really cool to just drive across the state and see Little Sahara, to see where it goes from sort-of flat to these red, clay mountains,” Brunstetter said. “It’s not that I didn’t think it would be beautiful, but it’s not what comes to mind when you think of the state.”
Brunstetter’s work tends to be categorized as dramedy, a mix of drama and comedy.
“That’s how I see the world and that’s how I end up writing,” she said.
For the purposes of this project, which again is too early-on to have firm details, Brunstetter said they are leaning toward an hour-long episode drama. However, it likely will have humorous moments and elements.
“Those comedy and drama categories are becoming really blurred now in TV, which I really love,” she said. “There are plenty of dramatic shows that also have humor in them, and this show definitely lives in that space.”
The origin of the project came from a meeting between Skydance Media and the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, to see if anything could be made out of their body of work, 100 years after the original musical was written.
Brunstetter said it will be an interesting challenge to find ways to weave the music into the story organically.
At this point in the process, Skydance Media hired Brunstetter and Hancock to create a concept for the show, a pitch that can be shared with different networks. The research now is for that pitch, a rough outline of the characters and plot for the first season.
Then, Brunstetter said, “over the course of a couple of weeks we will pitch the show to all of the different networks in Los Angeles that want to hear it.”
“Hopefully one of them decides to buy it,” Brunstetter said.
From there the network will either go straight to series, where the writers are paid upfront to make the whole thing and production of season one starts immediately, or they will have the writers make a complete episode and make a determination from there.
“Fortunately TV moves a bit faster than movies these days,” Brunstetter said. “There are twice the amount of shows and twice the amount of places to watch shows than were even 15 years ago.”
Leaving Oklahoma last week, Brunstetter had to ship herself a box of books given to her by people in Oklahoma as inspiration for her project.
Brunstetter said that she and Hancock plan to start pitching to networks by the end of the year.
“I think Oklahomans will be able to see themselves in the show in a truthful way and we have every intention of working closely with people in Oklahoma to ensure that it is authentic,” Brunstetter. “We don’t want to just show up and pretend that we understand y’alls state. Authenticity is our priority. We’re hoping to find these stories from the people who live there and get them on TV.”
Brunstetter emphasized her desire to include modern-day Native American people and struggles in the narrative.
“I want to include Native characters in a way that is surprising. In a way we haven’t seen before,” she said. “I don’t really know what that looks like yet, but I’m really excited about that challenge.”
“I’m excited about it because I feel like Oklahoma is first, overlooked and second, a great lens through which you can talk about a lot of things going on in America right now,” Brunstetter said. “There is a lot of television about what is going on in Los Angeles and what is going on along the east coast. The South and the middle of the country are getting left out of some really important storytelling.”