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Ann Arbor Schools orders ‘Oklahoma!’ production to go easy on the guns

A stamp printed by United States of America, shows heroes of musical "Oklahoma", circa 1993
The musical “Oklahoma!” has been a theater staple for generations of high school thespians. An Ann Arbor production is raising concerns about whether audience members should be exposed to prop guns and gun sound effects. (MM_photos /
  • An Ann Arbor high school musical is being tweaked to remove most prop guns
  • While no one is shot in ‘Oklahoma!’ many characters traditionally wear six-shooters
  • The response to the ‘ongoing epidemic of gun violence’ is being labeled censorship by some

An Ann Arbor high school production of the musical “Oklahoma!” is being revised just days before opening night to limit the use of prop guns, in response to the “ongoing epidemic of gun violence.”

One school board member fears the decision will make the schools a “laughingstock of the country.”


The popular 1943 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, set in the rough and tumble western frontier of 1906 Oklahoma, is filled with singing, love interests and dancing cowboys, typically with six-shooters on their hips. 


No character is shot in the show, but guns are used to threaten characters and silence a fight.

Still, on Tuesday, the Pioneer Theatre Guild, which manages plays at Pioneer High school, was ordered by Ann Arbor Public Schools to remove guns and gun-related sound effects from the musical.

Negotiations on Wednesday led to the decision to allow a limited number of prop weapons.

“Oklahoma! is a musical with pervasive gun use,” the theater guild and school district wrote in a joint statement. “Guns were a staple to the 1906 cowboy in Oklahoma.” 

Indeed, one of the production’s most memorable lines underscores the point: "I wanted to marry her when I saw the moonlight shining on the barrel of her father's shotgun."

Even so, the theater guild and school district wrote: “In response to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence, the cast and production team have had conversations about the use of guns in PTG’s production of Oklahoma! PTG has elected to eliminate the use of guns in every possible instance when it is not central to the plot.”

There will be two gunshot sound effects as the guns are pointed to the ceiling and “fired” to stay true to the dialogue and the story, according to the statement. Gunfire will be simulated with a percussion rimshot by the high school orchestra. Additionally, a character holds a prop gun to threaten another character, which is integral to a musical number in the show.

“PTG has been sensitive to this issue from day one of our production and this has provoked many thoughtful and important conversations,” the statement continued.

Requests for comment to the theater guild and Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift were not immediately returned Thursday.

It’s not the first time guns in “Oklahoma!” have raised concerns.

A Dallas professional production of the musical included a “prop gun warning” in its program, and a 2019 Broadway revival of the show donated money to organizations committed to fighting gun violence for every prop gun used on stage.

Still, the editing of a classic musical in a high school production raised eyebrows even in one of Michigan’s most liberal communities.

Jeff Gaynor, an Ann Arbor Schools board member, told Bridge Michigan that the board hasn’t been told what prompted the decision by the administration to become involved in the school play.


Gaynor said the board has received one email supporting the play change, and 48 urging the musical to be performed in its traditional form.

On Tuesday, he emailed Swift, the superintendent, saying that the changes demanded by the administration were “absurd” and “censorship,” and will “hit the local and likely national media, and we'll be the laughingstock of the country.

“It’s theater,” Gaynor wrote. “People know the difference” between a cowboy musical and real life gun violence.

The play opens Friday and runs through May 7 at Pioneer High School.

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