Sam Palladio on Oklahoma!: “I’d like audiences to be thrown a little bit”

We caught up with the actor ahead of his opening night to discuss his takeover as Curly in the acclaimed West End show

As if your first week on a West End show isn’t busy enough, Sam Palladio is taking a day away from the theatre on Wednesday 5 July to play a show with Maren Morris at Kentish Town Forum. Excited as he is, it does mean that his opening night celebrations are going to be fairly restrained. “I think maybe just like a little shot of bourbon or something…” he laughs.

If you hadn’t been tipped off already, Palladio is an ideal casting for a production like Oklahoma!, being equal parts actor and musician. He’s spent the last couple of years working on music in Nashville and prior to that starred in the musical drama series Nashville as aspiring musician Gunnar Scott. But a desire to return to his theatre roots has brought him back to London, where this month he’ll be taking over from Olivier winner Arthur Darvill as Curly McLain, Oklahoma!’s dubious hero. We caught up with Palladio ahead of his opening night to talk about his experience in the show so far, and why Curly is such a fascinating character to play.

Oklahoma! behind the scenes with Sam Palladio | Ticketmaster UK

How are you feeling about Monday?

I’m feeling really good. It’s been a great few weeks. It’s a lovely cast and company and I’ve been made to feel very welcome. There’s a lot that happens in the show; there’re lots of moving parts, so it’s been a challenge, but a really exciting one. Now I’ve just got to take a deep breath and relax and enjoy it.

How long has the rehearsal period been?

Three weeks. It was an audition process where I’d been in a couple of times over about a two-month period. I was in London a few months ago shooting a music video actually, and then they were like “Ooh, actually Oklahoma! would like to have you in again, if you’re in town.” And then suddenly the job came along. So I’ve had three weeks to get it all in my head, which has been fun. It was a show that I wasn’t familiar with, actually. A lot of the songs are absolute classics but I was a bit out of the loop. But it’s a testament to the writing that it’s just great stuff, and timeless. Hopefully I’ve absorbed it all.

Did you manage to see the show during the audition process?

I saw it the day before my recall here in London. I was straight off a plane, so I was super jet lagged. But I was just instantly like, wow. It’s an amazing production and it just had everything that I love about theatre. It’s challenging, it’s thought provoking, it makes you consider modern politics, it makes you consider love and death and tragedy, and it was just a really cool modern take on the classic musical. I was really impressed, honestly. And it got me excited. I think it leaves audiences a little shell-shocked sometimes, everything from on the edge of their seats through to, like, ‘I can’t handle it, I need to leave…’ sort of thing. Which is great. It’s what theatre should be. It should make you feel something.

I suppose it’s quite surprising to a lot of audiences that they have that reaction to Oklahoma!, which they probably think they know what to expect from.

Exactly. It’s supposed to be this safe, good old thigh-slapping fun time, which, obviously the show straddles that line really well, because it has the elements of the classic – the comedy, the love stories. The great thing is that nothing’s really been changed. The instrumentation is different but it just gives you that beautiful sort of Appalachian country flavour. It feels like the songs are new, but they’re not. It’s just such a great pace.

Has there been anything about preparing for the role that’s surprised you at all?

I think the challenge of coming from the last 10 years of my career which has been screen based – Nashville and various films and TV shows and whatnot. But I trained in London; I did my acting degree here at Rose Bruford College in London years ago, so it’s been really great to reconnect to theatre. Even in rehearsals, I’m finding new things. A three-week rehearsal feels so short, but a three-week rehearsal for a film or TV show would be unheard of. So it’s been really supportive in that way.

From a technical point of view, there’s a lot of guitar playing. There’s a lot of storytelling, there’s a lot of singing. I’ve spent these last two and a half years making my first record and being very much in the studio in Nashville and in LA, recording music and finding my voice as an artist. To sort of flip that and put on a kind of storyteller head back on for this production has been interesting and challenging because there’s a certain way of singing in this show that feels timeless – you want to tip the hat to musical theatre a little bit.

What’s nice and refreshing is that they don’t want it to be a classic portrayal. They want every person to be unique and have their own tone and own way of delivering, which was really refreshing because I didn’t want to step in and have to try and do my best Les Mis theatre voice. I don’t read music, so actually having a score put in front of me is just a completely foreign language, so the team has been really patient.

And then also being on a journey. The character has such a journey, in this show. And a lot of times, if I’m stepping in to do an episode of a show, or a part on some film or something, you know, he might be part of a wider story. But Curly is one of the through-lines for this piece. You’ve got to take it from trying to get the girl through to the trauma of the ending. Hitting those beats has been a challenge, but it’s been a rewarding journey.

What have you enjoyed most about digging into Curly as a character?

He loves himself. He loves the sound of his voice. He thinks he’s a great guitar player. And then he finds, when he doesn’t get what he wants straight away, how he can be kind of cruel and quite dark and sadistic, you know? It’s been an interesting journey just straddling that line between romantic lead meets villain. Classically, everyone’s like, oh, Curly, we love curly in Oklahoma!. And I think it’s great that this show really spotlights the choice that Laurie makes. She maybe could go with Jud who is actually a sort of fractured, delicate, real person as opposed to this classic villain. Curly’s not that different from him, you know?

Do you have an idea in your head of how you want audiences to react to Curly?

I’d like them to be thrown a little bit. I’d like I’d like them to come expecting the knight in shining armour and then walk away going, oh, yeah, he is a bit of an antihero, isn’t he? Did he make the right choices? At the end, he has a choice there where it can go many ways, you know. But the reality of it is that, you know, he figures out how to get out of that situation with the help of a community that’s sort of a good old boys’ club, making up their own rules. That has a lot of parallels to stuff that’s going on all over the world, really.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! | 2023 West End Trailer

Do you think that’s what has made audiences connect with this show so much – that these are behaviours that we’re still seeing?

Yeah, I think so. I live in Tennessee, in Nashville, and, you know, American politics is a whole thing, a whole game. Sitting down and watching that trial scene, and how the community deals with that… I see a lot of parallels to what’s happening stateside, at the moment. There’s a long list of people that are under fire. There are things that aren’t under fire, like gun control, and whatnot – real epidemics that don’t get solved. And then in Tennessee, people are shutting down women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, instead of tackling things that are really in your face problems. There are definitely parallels to modern life in the show that made me go, “Wow, yeah. God, I can see that.”

In terms of the music in the show, have you felt that the sound of it all has tied in quite nicely with the other music work you’ve done in your career so far?

Yeah, I feel quite comfortable in this world, because this sort of musical style has been in my life for the last 10 years. When this came along, you know, it felt like a play to me. It didn’t feel like tits and teeth musical theatre, you know, it felt like real issues, real stories. And really timeless music, which is important. I thought this would be a great challenge to step into a leading role, which I haven’t done in theatre since drama school, and to bring some of my Nashville experiences and sensibilities into this piece. And the guitar playing… There’s a lot of new territory, some beautiful chord changes which aren’t your standard country music pattern. It’s “three chords and the truth” in Nashville – that’s the catchphrase, you know? Rodgers and Hammerstein threw in a few more, but it’s still rooted in truth, I think.

Have you had a chance to speak to Arthur Darvill yet about the role?

Yeah, we had a little chat. I came to see the show a week or so ago. I didn’t want to want to study his performance, even though it’s Olivier Award-winning. I didn’t really want to see him do his thing too much. But, you know, Arthur has been great. We haven’t really delved too much into character, because I didn’t want to be too informed by his process. But it was just great to chat and to know that the company was so close, and it feels like it’s such an ensemble show, you know?

Everybody here just made me feel relaxed. It was funny – I’d spoken to Patrick (Vaill), and I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but after I got the job, I sort of sent him a message to say, “Hey, man, really excited to be joining you guys.” And he was like, “I can’t believe you’re coming.” He told me that months ago, him, Arthur and Anoushka (Lucas) were having a chat discussing the idea of somebody coming in to replace Arthur as Curly. He’d said that they’d all had a think, and they’d gone “Oh, what about Sam Palladio from Nashville – wouldn’t that just be great? We’d choose Sam Palladio.” So then I messaged him saying, “Hey, man, I’m your new Curly.” And he was like, “We can’t believe it. We manifested it!” I didn’t know anybody. It’s not like they were all friends of mine and I told them to put in a good word. It was just little fateful thing. I like to think they did some sort of séance before I came in. This is a nice way to start the job.

Sam Palladio will star in Oklahoma! from July 3. Find tickets here.

Sam is also appearing in the Nashville UK tour this October, with tickets available here.