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The financial risk of mounting a Broadway musical is so great that few productions ever make it to the Great White Way without a period of tryouts and revisions outside of New York City. This was as true in the 1940s as it is today, and especially so during the war years, when the producers of an innovative little musical called Away We Go had real concerns about their show’s commercial viability. Even with lyrics and music by two of theater’s leading lights, Away We Go was believed by many to be a flop in the making. Indeed, an assistant to the famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell captured the prevailing wisdom in a telegram sent from New Haven, Connecticut, during the show’s out-of-town tryout. His message read: “No girls. No legs. No chance.” This would prove to be one of the most off-base predictions in theater history when the slightly retooled show opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943 under a new title—Oklahoma!—and went on to set a Broadway record of 2,212 performances before finally closing 5 years later.
What was it that made Oklahoma! seem so risky? For one, it was the first show undertaken by the already legendary composer Richard Rodgers without his longtime partner, Lorenz Hart. Hart’s drinking and other personal problems had rendered him unable to work by 1942, so Rodgers would undertake his next project with a new partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. While Rodgers and Hammerstein almost instantly clicked as a songwriting duo, the creative chances they were taking with Oklahoma! were significant. The show had no big-name stars involved in it, it was based on relatively obscure source material and it was an ambitious experiment in integrating music and dance in service of storytelling rather than spectacle. At a time when Broadway musicals always opened with a “bang,” Oklahoma! would open with a lone cowboy singing a gentle idyll about corn and meadows.
From the very first moment on opening night, however, Oklahoma! hit a nerve. The show’s choreographer, the legendary Agnes DeMille, later recalled the audience reaction to that opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin': “[It] produced a sigh from the entire house, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in the theater. It was just, ‘aaaahh…’ It was perfectly lovely, and deeply felt.” Of the reaction to the title song, “Oklahoma!,” actress Joan Roberts, the original Laurey, said, “The applause was so deafening, and it continued and continued. We repeated two encores, and we stood there, until they stopped applauding! And I didn’t think they ever would!” That famous number had been changed from a solo to a full-cast showstopper only weeks earlier, during the show’s final tune-ups in Boston before the beginning of its history-making Broadway run on this day in 1943.
Oklahoma! (1955 film)
Oklahoma! is a 1955 American musical film based on the 1943 musical of the same name by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which in turn was based on the 1931 play Green Grow The Lilacs written by Lynn Riggs. It stars Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones (in her film debut), Rod Steiger, Charlotte Greenwood, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson, James Whitmore, and Eddie Albert. The production was the only musical directed by Fred Zinnemann.  Oklahoma! was the first feature film photographed in the Todd-AO 70 mm widescreen process (and was simultaneously filmed in CinemaScope 35mm).
Set in Oklahoma Territory, it tells the story of farm girl Laurey Williams (Jones) and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly McLain (MacRae) and the sinister and frightening farmhand Jud Fry (Steiger). A secondary romance concerns Laurey's friend, Ado Annie (Grahame), and cowboy Will Parker (Nelson), who also has an unwilling rival. A background theme is the territory's aspiration for Statehood, and the local conflict between cattlemen and farmers.
The film received a rave review from The New York Times,  and was voted a "New York Times Critics Pick".  In 2007, Oklahoma! was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".  
'Oklahoma!' premieres on Broadway - HISTORY
The song "Oklahoma!" not only became the state's official song in 1953, but the musical of that title also changed the nature of the Broadway genre.
The narrative originated in a stage play, Green Grow the Lilacs (titled from an Irish folk song and subtitled "A Folk-Play in Six Scenes"), by Oklahoma native Lynn Riggs. Riggs's play was produced in New York, opening at the Guild Theatre in January 1931. It closed after only sixty-four performances. Set in 1900 rural Indian Territory, seven years before Oklahoma statehood, the plot revolves around the conflict between ranchers and farmers and plays itself out in a romantic triangle comprised of cowboy–farm girl–hired hand. A charming, conceited cowboy, Curly McClain (played by Franchot Tone), is trying to court an innocent, unfulfilled farm girl, Laurey Williams (played by June Walker), but a lascivious, menacing farm hand, Jeeter Fry (played by Richard Hale) also wants her. At a festive play-party and dance Laurie rejects Jeeter's violent advances, and Curly asks to marry her. After the wedding, at a traditional "shivaree," the two men argue and fight, and Jeeter dies by falling on his own knife. The play ends as Curly escapes jail and spends his wedding night with his new wife.
In 1942 the Theatre Guild planned a musical adaptation of the play, first naming it Away We Go! and later Oklahoma! With script and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and musical score by Richard Rodgers (their first collaboration), choreography by Agnes DeMille, and direction by Rouben Mamoulian, the production opened on March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theater on Broadway. Curly was portrayed by Alfred Drake, Laurey by Joan Roberts, and Jud (formerly Jeeter) by Howard Da Silva. The parts of Ado Annie Carnes and an unnamed cowboy (now Will Parker) were elevated into a romantic subplot, and Celeste Holm and Lee Dixon were cast. Betty Garde played Aunt Eller Murphy.
Broadway audiences and theater critics, accustomed to a standard musicals formula, were surprised by Oklahoma! It broke the rules and invented a new formula. It was a play, with music (and was billed as "a musical play"), rather than the customary show with a thin plot that marketed new songs. In Oklahoma! lyrics served as additional dialogue, rather than simply showcasing a player's vocal skills. Dance provided an integrated dramatic element, with skillfully choreographed ballet "dream" sequences illuminating the characters' unspoken emotions and thoughts. The characters were strong and well defined. There was scant comedy. As Hammerstein noted, "'Mr. Riggs' play is the 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. . . . Lynn Riggs and Green Grow the Lilacs are the very soul of Oklahoma!'" Critics have often deemed the musical a folk opera.
Various developments made this Broadway musical unique. An "album" of show tunes, performed by the original cast in 1943 for recording in 78 rpm format, was the first use of this music-marketing technique. The production was the longest-running, thus far, in Broadway history, closing on May 29, 1948, after 2,212 performances. Ten million people saw the show on its national tour of 250 cities from October 1943 through April 1954.
In November 1946 the company came to Oklahoma for the first time, giving eight performances in Oklahoma City at the Municipal Auditorium. A lavish premier hosted by Gov. Robert Kerr entertained the Theatre Guild producers as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein. Over the life of the production McAlester native and University of Tulsa graduate Ridge Bond sang the role of Curly in fifteen hundred performances in New York and in the national touring company.
In 1955 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put Oklahoma! on the screen. The Hollywood adaptation was generally faithful to both of the earlier versions. However, producer Arthur Hornblow, noting that "Oklahoma just doesn't look like the Oklahoma of 1907 any more," filmed the outdoor segments near Nogales, Arizona. The movie starred Gordon MacRae as Curly, Shirley Jones as Laurey, Rod Steiger as Jud, Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie, Gene Nelson as Will Parker, and Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller. Oklahoma-born Barbara Lawrence played Gertie Cummings. The world premier, held in New York, included a parade led by Oklahoma Gov. Raymond Gary. In 1956 the film won Academy Awards for best musical score and best sound recording and was nominated for film editing and cinematography.
In April 1953 Oklahoma State Rep. George Nigh of McAlester introduced a bill to replace Oklahoma's official song, "Oklahoma, A Toast," with the title song of the musical. A few legislators and residents objected. Some found the song hard to sing and thought it would be difficult for students to learn. Others condemned the tune's "slangy language" or wanted a song written by an Oklahoman. The State Federation of Women's Clubs campaigned for the traditional Camden tune. Conversely, legislator Boyd Cowden favored "Oklahoma!" because he believed that the song and the Broadway show had done much to erase the negative image created by Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. The measure passed, Gov. Johnston Murray signed it, and it became effective on September 5, 1953.
At Oklahoma!'s twenty-fifth anniversary and just after the state's sixtieth, in January 1968 Gov. Dewey Bartlett received a congratulatory telegram from Richard Rodgers saying that it was "remarkable that your state has made such an enviable record of progress in the sixty short years since statehood." The show was subsequently revived on Broadway in 1951, 1979, and 2002. A general consensus remains that the musical has done more to improve the state's public image than any other effort ever made.
Gerald Bordman, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Ethan Mordden, Beautiful Morning: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Max Wilk, OK! The Story of Oklahoma! (New York: Grove Press, 1993).
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“Oklahoma!” a Historical Perspective
The 60 year old Arena Stage and its Artistic Director Molly Smith have recently opened the doors to its architecturally majestic new Mead Center for American Theater to rave reviews with a revival of the great American classic, Rodger‘s and Hammersteins‘s “Oklahoma!” This has prompted my look back to the inception of an important milestone in the history and development of the American theater.
Opening night was March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theater on 44th St. It had been only 16 months since the attack on Pearl Harbor. The curtain opened to a simple scene of the American western frontier. The theater was not sold out. Success was not assured.
“Oklahoma!” was Richard Rodgers’ first collaboration without his long time partner, lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart. The prolific team of Rodgers and Hart had lasted a quarter of a century, giving birth to some of America’s greatest songs. But Hart was a chronic alcoholic and lately had become more difficult to work with. He would mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hart’s lyrics for their last collaboration, “By Jupiter,” were written while he was drying out in a hospital room. His health was deteriorating. In less than a year, Larry Hart would be dead from pneumonia at the age of 48.
The initial concept for the show “Oklahoma!” came from Theresa Helburn, a co-director and founder of the Theater Guild, which was suffering financially at the time. She had known and admired Richard Rodgers since 1925, when the Guild produced the first Rodgers and Hart hit show, “The Garrick Gaieties.” The premise for “Oklahoma!” spawned from a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which had not done very well, running only 62 performances.
The play was set in the area where Riggs was born and raised, the Indian Territory of Oklahoma at the turn of the century. In July of 1940, there was a revival of the play at Westport, Connecticut. After that revival, Helburn began to promote the idea of the play as a musical. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein became interested in the idea separately.
During tryouts, there had been an air of pessimism surrounding the show. Oscar Hammerstein II at the time was at a low point in his career. He had not scored a hit in years. The new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein as a pair was untested and had trouble raising funds to get the production to Broadway. Money was scarce during the war, and few had faith in a musical based on “cowboys and farmhands.” Conventional wisdom held that a show could not be a hit if it had a murder in it. The new team had to economize, and the young cast, though talented, was made up of then relative unknowns that included Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm. Prior to that time, roles in musicals were filled with actors who could sing. Rodgers and Hammerstein operated in reverse, choosing to cast the show with singers who could act. Helburn wanted Groucho Marx for the peddler and Shirley Temple for Laurey, but RH insisted on legitimate Broadway performers.
Agnes De Mille’s choreography was one of the show’s major innovations. But she had a quarrelsome temperament and insisted on hiring dancers for their abilities, not their looks. Powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell had written that noted producer Michael Todd was overheard in the lobby during the New Haven tryout saying, “No legs. No jokes. No Chance.” (What Todd actually said used a different word for “legs” but both Winchell and I have cleaned it up for print.)
When the show was trying out in New Haven it was titled “Away We Go.” Hammerstein had originally wanted to call it “Oklahoma,” but the name was rejected because it was felt that the audience might confuse it with “Oakies” in the Grapes of Wrath. When the show arrived on Broadway, the title was changed back to “Oklahoma!” this time with an exclamation point for emphasis.
Oklahoma’s record run of five years and nine months on Broadway was unbroken until My Fair Lady, opening in 1956, finally broke it in 1961. The original production of Oklahoma ran 2,248 performances, including over 40 special matinees for people in the armed forces. It played to nearly 5 million people during the original run, and to over 10 million in its first national road tour, which lasted from 1943 to 1954. The London show set another record. ‘Oklahoma!’ brought great financial reward and fame to the new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. In its first 10 years, it made a profit of $5 million on an initial investment of $83,000. A special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the new team in 1944. The new partnership would last until Hammerstein’s death in 1960.
What made “Oklahoma!” a success?
The “Broadway musical” was the first major theatrical form developed in the US, but in 1943 it was caught in a stylistic rut. Prior to Oklahoma, most hit shows were essentially vehicles to showcase the talents of its stars. They had little serious to say and there was no need to integrate the songs, dances, comedy routines and the spectacular chorus girl numbers.
Shows were expensive to mount and money was scarce during the Depression, so producers became increasingly conservative and stuck largely to formulas that had driven past successes.
In “Oklahoma!” the musical found a new form. This “integrated musical” marked a revolution in American theater. “Oklahoma!” was the complete synthesis of music, libretto, lyrics, dancing and staging. The show had structure and a sense of dramatic build that until then had been present only in a straight non-musical play. Even the dance numbers became integral to moving the story and developing the characters. Certainly the great words and music had a lot to do with the success. The score was so popular that it became the first musical to have a complete original cast album by a major label, beginning the trend of recording original cast albums. Decca’s heavy 6 record set sold over 1 million copies in its first year. Later it was one of the first recordings of a musical to be released on CD.
Oscar Hammerstein II has been called the premier poet of the American musical theater. From the beginning, Hammerstein proposed writing the lyrics before the music, allowing him to shape the overall concept of the musical. For Rodgers, this was in the reverse order from the way he had worked with Larry Hart. But Rodgers’ mastery of the genre is illustrated by this short anecdote: It had taken Oscar Hammerstein three weeks to write the lyric to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” As the story goes, he took it to Rodgers, who was then at his home in Connecticut. To his amazement, it took Rodgers only ten minutes to write the music. Rodgers said it was almost a reflex. His musical thoughts were so conditioned by the words that it took about “as long to compose it as to play it.” It became one of the most famous of Rodgers’ songs. Julie Styne, one of the great American Songwriters, wrote, “No one ever wrote a piece of music to already written words better than Rodgers. He always made it sound as though the music was composed first.”
The time and the mood of the country were also contributing factors to the success of “Oklahoma!” The show hit a nostalgic chord with audiences just out of the Depression and into World War II. The show was a favorite date for servicemen on leave. In 1943, when the show opened, Oklahoma the state was only 36 years old. It reminded many of their pioneer past, of immigrants struggling to put down roots in a new world. America suddenly found itself at war with three fascist powers and its people longed to believe in a brighter future. “Oklahoma!” was about home, family, love, and the triumph of good over evil—precisely what Americans were fighting for.
You can enjoy “Oklahoma!” directed by Molly Smith, now thru December 26, 2010 at the Arena Stage www.arenastage.com
[This article was originally published on November 10, 2010, for The Georgetowner.]
Over 75 years after Rodgers & Hammerstein reinvented the American musical, this is Oklahoma! as you&rsquove never seen or heard it before &ndash reimagined for the 21st century. &ldquoThis production shocked and moved me,&rdquo raves Frank Rich of New York Magazine. &ldquoForget your traditional idea of Oklahoma! Daniel Fish&rsquos daring, brilliant, utterly absorbing re-interpretation is dark and different&mdashbrilliantly so.&rdquo (The Daily Beast) &ldquoAn audacious, sexy, upending ride&rdquo (NY1) that&rsquos &ldquoas stimulating and jolting &ndash and as fresh &ndash as last night&rsquos fever dream. Oklahoma! is astonishing.&rdquo (The New York Times)
Don&rsquot miss the #1 Theatrical Event of the Year (Time Magazine, 2018) and &ldquothe hottest ticket in town.&rdquo (Town & Country) Now playing in Broadway&rsquos most intimate theater, Circle in the Square, for a limited time only.
Two Broadway Shows Dismantle the American Myth
Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones star in Daniel Fish’s revisionist staging of “Oklahoma!,” which strips the show’s mid-century pluck and reveals what was twisted and erotic at its core. Photograph by Little Fang
“Lots of things happen to folks.” Those were the words that haunted me as I left the dark, sexy, weird, brutal new Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” the other night—words as banal and deadly and all-American as Donald Rumsfeld’s “Stuff happens.” They’re spoken by Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), the part played by every budding character actress in seventh grade, now reimagined as a patriarchal enforcer, a corn-shucking variation on Aunt Lydia, from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It happens near the end of the show, and she’s speaking to her niece, Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who, in Daniel Fish’s revisionist staging, is in a white wedding dress spattered with blood. Curly (Damon Daunno), Laurey’s new cowboy husband, has just killed his romantic rival, the loner farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), whose corpse lies nearby. Aunt Eller counsels the traumatized Laurey to be “hardy,” and, when Laurey interrupts—“I wisht I was the way you are”—Aunt Eller says, “Fiddlesticks!” Testa delivers the line stone cold.
What follows is a quickie show trial of Curly. If you haven’t seen “Oklahoma!” for a while, you could be forgiven for forgetting that it ends with a trial scene. The whole thing is rushed and perfunctory—because Curly is the good guy, and the town elders have decided that he shouldn’t spend his wedding night in jail. A federal marshal (an unsmiling Anthony Cason) objects that it “wouldn’t be proper” to free Curly, but he’s overruled. In most productions, the trial flits along like farce, with the audience as eager to see it through as Aunt Eller, so we can get to the happy ending. But Fish slows the sequence down to a horror show, with the characters packing heat and trading conspiratorial stares—like something out of Tarantino, or maybe Jordan Peele. Once Curly gets his acquittal, the cast breaks into a reprise of the opening number: “I’ve got a beautiful feelin’ / everythin’s goin’ my way!” You feel sick.
Of all the dark innovations of Fish’s staging, the trial scene may be the most chilling. Fish’s revival strips the mid-century pluck from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic to reveal what was twisted and erotic at its core. Curly, a happy-go-lucky cowboy, is now a manipulative crooner who knows the dangerous charm of his guitar Jud is a porn-obsessed incel who looks like Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo” and Laurey is a woman at war with her own libido, simultaneously drawn to and repelled by both men, even though she’s little more than property to be won. (A literal auction of women—or at least their pies—precedes the trial.) Usually, Jud dies by accidentally falling on his knife here, he allows Curly, who has already tried coercing him into suicide, in Act I, to shoot him point-blank. As Fish told Cynthia Zarin last year, “There’s something to me so American about the last scene, the moment of instant amnesia, of how quickly we move on. It’s not, for example, very German. The Germans eat their history. We have an unwillingness to look at our own crimes.”
As I watched the scene, I couldn’t help thinking about another Off Broadway hit from last fall that has made the unlikely move to Broadway: Heidi Schreck’s brilliant autobiographical play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which was just named a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Schreck, who comes from the Samantha Bee school of exuberant exasperation, begins the show by reminiscing about her years as a Reagan-era teen-ager in Washington State, giving speeches about the U.S. Constitution for prize money in American Legion halls. “I really did believe there was no greater democracy on the planet, and that this document was the most genius piece of political writing that had ever been created,” Schreck told me a few months ago.
As an adult, she began questioning her reverence for the document: Whom does it leave out? What would happen if we scrapped it and started over? Onstage, she revisits her family’s history of domestic violence—and the way that the Constitution has failed to protect women’s bodies and rights, along with those of ethnic and sexual minorities. She tells us about Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a 2005 Supreme Court case in which a Colorado woman sued her police department for not properly enforcing a restraining order against her abusive husband, who subsequently murdered their three daughters. Schreck plays some audio from the case, in which the Justices, examining the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, spend more time talking about the meaning of the word “shall” than about Gonzales. The Court ruled against her. “Scalia ultimately decided that ‘shall’ did not mean ‘must,’ ” Schreck says. “Which is confusing because Scalia was a devout Catholic.”
Since seeing the two shows Off Broadway, I’ve felt that “Oklahoma!” and “What the Constitution Means to Me” are companion pieces, despite being culled from opposite ends of the American theatrical spectrum—the Golden Age musical and first-person performance art. Both are about the frontier, about the bending of justice, and about how America’s origin story isn’t as sunny as it’s cracked up to be. (Both, I should add, are fabulously entertaining and funny.) Like the Coen brothers film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Fish’s “Oklahoma!” tears the romance from the myth of westward expansion, just as Schreck strips the “Schoolhouse Rock!” corniness from American governance. In both cases, the fairy tale is a coverup, obscuring bodies and blood. Did Jessica Gonzales get any more justice than Jud Fry? And is “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” any less deceptive than “We the People”? It’s notable that both shows originated in 2007, late in the disillusioning George W. Bush years—“Oklahoma!” as a Bard College production with a student cast and “Constitution” as a ten-minute piece at an East Village variety night—and hit a chord in the Trump era. In between, under Barack Obama, came “Hamilton,” which envisioned America’s founding as expansive and cool, setting the course for inexorable progress. A legacy, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton reminds us, is “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” But what if the soil is diseased?
“Oklahoma!,” which premièred in 1943, probably should have creeped us out all along. It begins with one cowboy planning to buy his girlfriend’s matrimony for fifty dollars, while Aunt Eller advises Curly that, if her niece tries to fend him off, he should “jist grab her and kiss her.” In those cringey moments, which Fish menacingly foregrounds, I was reminded of Schreck’s stories of her great-great-grandmother Theressa, a mail-order bride who emigrated from Germany to Washington State in 1879. “The reason Theressa was considered a ‘good’ immigrant is because at the time the male-to-female ratio in Washington State was nine to one,” Schreck tells the audience. In her research, she found contemporaneous newspaper accounts, from the logging town where Theressa settled, filled with gruesome headlines of domestic violence, such as “Husband Stomps Wife’s Face with Spiked Logging Boots.” Theressa died in a mental institution, at thirty-six, of “melancholia.”
Cut back to Aunt Eller, at the end of “Oklahoma!,” telling Laurey, “You cain’t deserve the sweet and tender things in life less’n you’re tough.” Like Theressa, Laurey, as portrayed by Jones, is suffering from what might be called melancholia. She seems to know that none of her options are good—she’s aroused yet scared by Jud, and annoyed yet secure with Curly. Laurey is hardy, but she’s also trapped—a frontier woman whose value, like Theressa’s, lies in wedlock. On occasion, Fish has her sing in a low green light, as if communicating directly from her subterranean desires. Jones doesn’t crack the slightest of smiles as she sings one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s daintiest tunes, “Many a New Day”:
Many a red sun will set,
Many a blue moon will shine
Before I do.
Both shows have unsettling stories to tell about statehood. “Oklahoma!,” based on the 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” takes place in 1906, when Oklahoma was on the cusp of becoming the forty-sixth state. That year, Congress passed the Oklahoma Enabling Act, allowing the Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory to enter the Union under a single-state constitution, which it did the following year. (Oklahoma’s nickname, the Sooner State, refers to the settlers who preëmpted a land run in 1889 and claimed some of what was then called the Unassigned Lands, though the area was inhabited by relocated Creeks and Seminoles.) The musical is set in Claremore, in Indian Territory, and its characters anticipate statehood with such bright lyrics as “Territory folks should stick together” and “Brand new state, gonna treat you great!” At Curly’s trial, of course, the territory folks do stick together, and you’re left to wonder at whose expense.
Schreck’s native Washington—the Evergreen State—was admitted into the union earlier, in 1889, ten years after her great-great-grandmother came from Germany. “Remember that thing I said about the male-to-female ratio in Washington State being nine to one?” Schreck says late in the play. “Yeah. That’s bullshit. That’s what my history teacher Mr. Berger taught me at fifteen, in my Pacific Northwest History class.” Of course, there were women, of the Wenatchi and Salish tribes, but, in the new nation that Washington was joining, they didn’t count. Marriage—the white kind—was a transaction essential to statehood, one for which Theressa was bought and then left to wither at Western State Hospital.
Only in retrospect does it seem surprising that there were empty seats in the St. James Theatre the night Oklahoma! opened, on March 31, 1943.
After all, no member of the cast could have remotely been called a star. The Theatre Guild, which produced it, was at the end of its financial rope after a disastrous series of failure. Agnes de Mille, the choreographer, well known and respected in the small world of serious dance, had not yet had a Broadway success. Rouben Mamoulian, principally a film director, had done only one prior Broadway musical, Porgy and Bess , an artistic success but a financial failure. Richard Rodgers, for the first time in his career, was writing songs with someone other than Lorenz Hart, and no one, including himself, knew how he would do. Oscar Hammerstein II, meanwhile, had had six Broadway flops in a row.
The smart money certainly wasn’t expecting much. The producer Mike Todd, who walked out after the first act during the show’s New Haven tryout, had returned to New York to wisecrack, “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
But Mike Todd was wrong. Instead Samuel Johnson, as usual, had proved to be right, and the prospect of being hanged, at least professionally, had concentrated minds wonderfully. The next day the reviews were nearly unanimous raves, and Mike Todd was hastily denying he had ever bad-mouthed the show. The police had to be summoned to cope with a near-riot at the box office. Oklahoma! won a special Pulitzer Prize. By the time it closed half a decade later, Oklahoma! had run more than three times as long as any book musical in history. Its investors earned thirty-three dollars in return for each one they had risked. And the following seventeen years are still remembered on Broadway as the Rodgers and Hammerstein era.
The show that had had no chance became the most important musical in Broadway history.
Richard Rodgers was born in New York City in 1902 into a prosperous family. His father was a doctor (as, later, would be his older brother, Mortimer). Although no relative had ever been a professional musician, there was a strong family love of music. His mother played the piano well, and group singing of the latest hit songs was a common evening’s entertainment in the household. Rodgers, at a very early age, showed extraordinary musical aptitude, playing easily by ear. Before long he was displaying that rarest of all musical talents, a gift for melody, picking out tunes of his own devising.
He soon decided on a career in the theater, and his family, most unusually, encouraged him in this, even backing his decision to transfer from Columbia University to the Institute of Musical Art (now known as the Juilliard School). Because of his Juilliard training, Rodgers was among the most musically well educated of the Broadway composers of his time. (Irving Berlin, by way of contrast, could not even read music.)
At Columbia, Rodgers had met the budding lyricist Lorenz Hart and soon started writing songs with him. For the next twenty years Rodgers and Hart were to be that great exception in the artistically promiscuous world of the musical theater: an exclusive songwriting team. (Indeed, there had been only one earlier, Gilbert and Sullivan, and even today, nearly fifty years after Hart’s death, there have been only two others, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Kander and Ebb.)
From the beginning in 1925, with The Garrick Gaieties , when Rodgers was not quite twenty-three and Hart was thirty, the pair knew almost nothing but success. In the late thirties and early forties, after a frustrating period in Hollywood, they returned to Broadway and turned out one big hit show after another: On Your Toes , Babes in Arms , Pal Joey , and By Jupiter among them. Many of the Rodgers and Hart shows were highly innovative, pushing the musical-comedy form in new directions.
Rodgers married in 1930 and fathered two daughters. With his success and his happy family, he had the world on a string. But Hart, as he moved into middle age, was an increasingly tormented man. Although he was enormously gifted with language, that did not compensate for the fact that he was only about five feet tall, with the big head and short limbs of the dwarf he very nearly was. Further, he was a homosexual in a time when homosexuality was considered at best a grave personal misfortune, at worst a matter of moral turpitude.
Hart spent his life deep in the closet, and this, in turn, engendered in him a sadness at the core of his being that slowly congealed into a profound selfloathing. He would have subscribed fully to what his contemporary and fellow poet Samuel Hoffenstein meant when he wrote, “Everywhere I go, I go too, and spoil everything.”
In his early days Hart made up for his loneliness with both his work and his frenetic personality. Hammerstein, who knew him well, recalled him after his death as having been like “an electrified gnome,” always on the run, tossing off jokes, grabbing checks, throwing parties, trying—a little too hard—to be everyone’s friend. Later Hart turned more and more to alcohol. He took to disappearing for days at a time or showing up in no condition to work.
Rodgers, a fastidious, careful, punctual man, bore Hart’s deteriorating behavior with great patience, not usually a virtue for which Rodgers was noted. When Hart would disappear while a deadline loomed, his partner would search for him, get him dried out, and then more or less lock the two of them in a room with a piano until Hart had produced the needed lyrics. This Hart would do with astonishing facility, often in little more time than it took him to write down the words. The job done, Rodgers would let him go, and he would hurry back to the oblivion that now alone dulled the pain of being Larry Hart.
Together they created extraordinary songs, songs that often achieved their power and longevity from the very tension between the opposite natures of the two creators.
Just consider one of their most famous, “Falling in Love with Love,” from The Boys from Syracuse (1938). The music is one of Rodgers’s sunniest, most lilting waltzes, but set in a minor key to match Hart’s lyric, which speaks for itself: “Falling in love with love,/Is falling for make-believe./Falling in love with love/Is playing the fool./Caring too much is such/A juvenile fancy./Learning to trust is just/For children in school./I fell in love with love/One night when the moon was full./I was unwise, with eyes/Unable to see./I fell in love with love,/With love everlasting,/But love fell out with me.”
Even before By Jupiter opened in 1942 and became the biggest hit Rodgers and Hart ever wrote, Rodgers realized that his partner’s ability to write another show was problematic at best. He also knew that he himself needed to keep on working, even if his partner could not. Rodgers didn’t know where to turn, so he turned, as so many in the New York theater did when they needed advice, to Oscar Hammerstein II.
Unlike Rodgers, Hammerstein was born to the theater as few Broadway giants were. His grandfather and namesake was probably the most famous person in American show business in the two decades surrounding the turn of the century. His Victoria Theatre of Varieties on Times Square, which opened in 1904, was an enormously successful vaudeville house, providing the money Oscar Hammerstein needed to fulfill a dream. He wanted to compete head-on with the Metropolitan Opera Company, the most important, and by far the richest, opera company in the Western Hemisphere.
For four years the plucky, theatrically innovative immigrant with a genius for publicity and a passion for opera battled the august, stodgy, endlessly wealthy Metropolitan. The contest transfixed the world of opera and titillated the nation. Hammerstein’s vibrant, totally professional productions were remembered by all who saw them for the rest of their lives, but finally even Hammerstein had to accede to reality. He was broke. Asked by a friend what he was opening his season with, Hammerstein snapped, “With debts.” He got some of it back, however, when he sold out to the Metropolitan for a million dollars.
While Oscar I was using the profits of the Victoria to fight for supremacy in opera, his son William (the father of Oscar II) worked as the Victoria’s manager to see that those profits kept rolling in. While far more down-to-earth than his father, William was equally creative as a theatrical manager. It was Willie Hammerstein who was credited with having invented that perennial favorite of lowbrow comedy, the pie-in-the-face routine.
Under the circumstances, young Oscar, who was born in 1895, could hardly have escaped a careful education in the theater, from La Bohème to blackface, but Willie did not want his children to take up show business as a career. So Oscar II went to Columbia University and then entered Columbia Law School. But the law bored him, and he dropped out. His father now dead, he pestered his uncle Arthur Hammerstein, a well-known Broadway producer, for a job and was soon working as a stage manager and writing plays and songs, usually in collaboration with others.
He married early, and unsuccessfully, but soon had his first Broadway hit, the musical comedy Wildflower , in 1923. It had music by Vincent Youmans and a book and lyrics written jointly by Hammerstein and Otto Harbach. Although Wildflower was a big hit for the time (in fact, it ran longer than any show ever written by Rodgers and Hart), there was little to distinguish it from all the other musical comedies that opened and closed on Broadway with great regularity at the time.
Musical comedy had its roots in vaudeville. The plots of these shows were slight, the characters pasteboard, and the jokes and songs often had little, if anything, to do with either. But musical comedies could also be very inventive, often on the cutting edge of popular music. Moreover, musicalcomedy lyrics, at least for the major songs, were carefully written, poetically sophisticated, and often extremely witty. As with Gilbert and Sullivan, and unlike European musical theater, they were as important as the music itself.
From early on Hammerstein sought to expand the boundaries of the purely American musical-comedy form. He wanted to bring it closer to the op- eretta, a much more dramatically solid kind of musical theater that had roots in Berlin and especially Vienna, as well as a long Broadway tradition. With his next big hit, Rose Marie , in 1924, he began to do so. Then, in 1927, he and Jerome Kern wrote Show Boat .
Today Show Boat is the only musical of the 1920s that can hold the boards in its own right, not just as a historical curiosity with good songs. It is, in every sense of the word, a masterpiece. Hammerstein was always at his best adapting the work of others, and his dramatization of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel was a marvel of concision. The score was an integrated whole, arising out of the dramatic situation. Yet it produced no fewer than six songs that became standards.
In one of these songs, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Hammerstein for the first time expressed what would become a constant theme in his later work: the idea that human love is an elemental force in human nature, quite beyond the control of those who experience it. “Tell me he’s lazy, tell me he’s slow./Tell me I’m crazy (maybe I know)—/Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine.”
Doubtless this expressed a long-held belief. Doubtless also, it reflected his recent encounter “across a crowded room” with Dorothy Blanchard, who was to be his second wife and the love of his life. Twenty years later, when his lyrics were published in book form, he dedicated the volume, simply, “To Dorothy, the song is you.”
But as the twenties gave way to the thirties, and boom to depression, Hammerstein’s style of musical—romantic, concerned with character and the nature of love—went out of style. Instead shows featuring the lives of the rich and set in penthouses and ocean liners—the Broadway-musical version of Hollywood screwball comedies—came into vogue.
Although Hammerstein and Kern’s Music in the Air was the big hit of the dismal 1932 season, it would be Hammerstein’s last success for eleven long years. His only hits thereafter were occasional individual songs such as “All the Things You Are” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
This last song was most atypical of Hammerstein. For one thing, it was one of the very few he ever wrote not intended for a particular play or movie. (It was later interpolated into the movie Lady Be Good and won the Academy Award for best song in 1941.) He had written the lyric only because he was so saddened by the fall of Paris, a city he deeply loved, to the Nazis in the early summer of 1940. Jerome Kern then set it to music.
Further, it showed a side of Hammerstein that was not often revealed in his work. For if he was not a particularly urban man, he was a thoroughly urbane and sophisticated one and was quite as much at home in Paris as at his beloved Pennsylvania farm. Even there, as his potégé Stephen Sondheim explained, if the cattle were often standing like statues, they did so right beyond the tennis court.
Despite the success of “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” when Rodgers called him in the summer of 1941, the wisdom on that hard-nosed thoroughfare they both knew so well had it that Hammerstein’s Broadway career was washed up.
Hammerstein’s response to Rodgers’s plea for advice was typical of the man. He told Rodgers that he should keep working with Hart for as long as possible. He thought that for Rodgers to walk away from his partner now would kill him. But he told Rodgers that if the time came when Hart was unable to finish a job, he should let him know and he would finish it for him, with no one but the two of them the wiser.
After Rodgers and Hart completed By Jupiter (Rodgers got Hart to check into a hospital until the score was completed), Rodgers, as always, immediately looked for another project.
The Theatre Guild, in 1931, had produced a play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow the Lilacs . It had been a flop then, but Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner, who ran the Guild, thought it had possibilities as a musical. Rodgers immediately saw the potential Hart was less enthusiastic.
To be sure, Hart had reasons beyond a desire to just drink. Rodgers and Hart had never written a musical with a Western setting. Most of their shows had been set either in semimythical places, like ancient Greece, or in great cities. Indeed, the most Western song they had ever written was probably “Way Out West on West End Avenue,” from Babes in Arms .
By pure coincidence, Hammerstein also had sensed the musical in Green Grow the Lilacs , in early 1942. He went to California and tried to interest Jerome Kern, then living in Beverly Hills, but Kern just didn’t see it. Returning East, Hammerstein nonetheless asked the Theatre Guild for the rights. He was told that Rodgers and Hart had already been given them, but that they needed someone to write the book. Hammerstein jumped at it.
On July 23, 1943, there appeared a notice in The New York Times that the trio would begin work shortly, Rodgers on music, Hart on lyrics, and Hammerstein on the book.
But the more Hart thought about it, the less he wanted anything to do with it. He wanted to go off to Mexico. He didn’t want to think about doing another show. And he certainly didn’t want to make a musical of Green Grow the Lilacs .
Rodgers, perhaps sensing with the instincts of genius a golden opportunity, was determined. He warned Hart that the show meant a lot to him. If Hart refused, he said, he would have to look for another collaborator to write the lyrics.
“Anyone in mind?” Hart asked.
“Well,” said Hart, who had destroyed only himself, not the feel for theater that made him great, “you couldn’t pick a better man.” Rodgers and Hart had become Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein had become Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Hammerstein was as different from Hart as two great lyricists could possibly be. Hart’s lyrics were intricate, witty, bittersweet. His talent for rhyming was surpassed by no one and equaled, perhaps, only by W. S. Gilbert and, later, Stephen Sondheim. Hammerstein’s lyrics were carefully wrought and deceptively simple, more concerned with character than with being clever. Hammerstein could never have written the words to “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” or “Glad to Be Unhappy.” But equally Hart could never have written “Ol’ Man River” or “If I Loved You.”
There were great personal differences as well. Hammerstein was large, over six foot two. He was at peace with himself. He rose early and drank little. He was a careful and very hard worker. The methodical Rodgers, after years of having to pry his lyricist out of gin mills and steam rooms to get a song written, found Hammerstein’s work habits a great relief, and the two hit it off as collaborators from the start.
As they set to work on turning Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, they made two decisions almost immediately that had a deep impact on Oklahoma! The first was that Hammerstein would write the lyrics and Rodgers would then set them to music.
Hart had always needed a tune to provoke the lyrics out of him. Indeed, writing the music first had long been the usual, and peculiar, Broadway custom. It stemmed, perhaps, from the fact that many early Broadway composers had been European, with limited command of English and its stress patterns.
By reversing the procedure, Hammerstein had a much freer hand to find the exact right words for the character and the situation. The effect of this way of writing songs on Rodgers’s music was marked, and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein would sound very different from that of Rodgers and Hart, while still always sounding ineluctably of Richard Rodgers.
The second decision was to let the dramatic situation, not Broadway musical conventions, dictate what happened onstage. For instance, convention said that it was important to get the chorus line on view as soon as possible, preferably for the opening number. But it would be nearly forty minutes before the chorus of Oklahoma! appeared onstage. (This, of course, was the origin of Mike Todd’s “no legs” complaint.)
With this decision made, the new partners soon worked out the basic plot and the placement of the songs. The plot revolves around the mutual attraction of Curly, a cowboy, and Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller and the sinister farmhand Jud. While both are determined not to appear too anxious, it is obvious early on that Curly and Laurey are hopelessly in love. This mutual ambivalence underlies all the songs involving the two, from “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” to “Many a New Day,” “Out of My Dreams,” and even their big love song, “People Will Say We’re in Love.” A subplot involving a farmer, Will Parker, of no great brains, and Ado Annie, his girl who just “Cain’t Sav No,” provides comic relief.
Jud, also smitten with Laurey, complicates matters considerably and adds what dramatic darkness there is to a mostly sunny and positive show, especially with the brooding song “Lonely Room.” He scares Laurey into accepting his offer to take her to a box social. In the dream ballet Laurey’s anxieties about men in general and Jud in particular come out.
At the box social Jud tries to force himself on Laurey, who summons her courage and fires him. He vows revenge and slinks away, while Curly comes to Laurey’s rescue and they both finally admit how much they love each other. On their wedding day the couple and their guests sing, in the song “Oklahoma,” about their upcoming life together in what will soon be a brand-new state. Then, suddenly, Jud shows up and gets into a fight with Curly. He attacks with a knife but accidentally falls on it and is killed. Curly is quickly found not guilty of any wrongdoing, and he and Laurey set off on their honeymoon.
The writing of Oklahoma! moved along relatively easily. But as Stephen Sondheim would explain many years later, “Creating art is easy. Financing it is not.” And never was that more true than with Oklahoma! The Theatre Guild had usually financed its shows out of its own resources. Now it no longer could afford the eighty-three thousand dollars at which Oklahoma! was budgeted.
To help raise the money, Rodgers and Hammerstein were forced to take to the “penthouse circuit,” where, in the early days, Rodgers would play the piano and Hammerstein would sing the lyrics. After Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts were cast as the leads, Hammerstein was mercifully relieved of this task.
Rodgers remembered one night going to an apartment that “was not only large enough to have a ballroom in it, it actually had a ballroom in it.” But while seventy people listened politely, nibbled canapés, and sipped champagne, they subscribed not one dime. Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner, who headed the Theatre Guild, called on everyone they knew and called in every chit they had out there. But it was long, slow work. Howard Cullman, a long-time Broadway angel, turned them down flat. (He later framed and hung Helburn’s letter over his desk to remind himself of what he had missed.) Max Gordon, another producer, invested, however, and in turn interested Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. Cohn loved the show and tried to get the Columbia board to agree to provide the rest of the financing. For a brief period it seemed that the troubles were over.
But Cohn, who usually ruled Columbia with a firm hand, this time could not get the board to go along. He put up fifteen thousand dollars of his own money, but the Theatre Guild was still short of what was needed.
Theresa Helburn went to see S. N. Behrman, a playwright who had had many successes produced by the Theatre Guild over the years. “Sam, you’ve got to take twenty thousand dollars of this,” she said, “because the Guild has done so much for you.”
“But, Terry,” Behrman responded, “that’s blackmail.”
Blackmail or not, he gave her the money and thereby enriched himself by $660,000.
Rehearsals began in February 1943.
The Broadway musical is the most technically complex of all dramatic art forms for the simple reason that it includes elements of all the other forms. Composers, lyricists, directors, book writers, choreographers, actors, and set, costume, and lighting designers, musicians, dancers, singers, must all work together to create a finished whole.
As talented people usually come equipped with fully functional egos, the mounting of a new musical, even one with relatively few problems, is a trying time for all concerned. (Larry Gelbart, the librettist for several musicals, once said, “If Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”)
Agnes de Mille insisted at the outset that she have complete control over casting the chorus, but Hammerstein told her, deadpan, that she’d have to make room for everyone’s mistresses. Once she realized he was kidding, she relaxed a little. Rouben Mamoulian took the clause in his contract that gave him “a free hand” very seriously and was soon at loggerheads with de Mille. He banished her from the stage, and she was forced to rehearse the dancers in the downstairs lounge of the Guild Theatre (now the Virginia) on West Fifty-second Street, where the rehearsals were taking place.
When Rodgers and Hammerstein saw the sketches for the costumes before he did, Mamoulian had a thorough-going temper tantrum. Marc Platt, the male lead dancer, had to drag de Mille off screaming from one rehearsal that was going badly and hold her head under a cold-water faucet until she calmed down. Mamoulian wanted to enhance the farm atmosphere with live horses, cows, and chickens, a dramatic device that is expensive, difficult, risky, and notoriously unpopular with actors. He finally settled for a few pigeons, but the birds flew around the theater on opening night in New Haven and were never seen again.
Although everyone else lost their tempers, Rodgers and Hammerstein did not. Both were quietly confident throughout. One night in New Haven after a performance, when other members of the production, seated in the orchestra, were sniping at one another, Rodgers, onstage, said to them: “Do you know what I think is wrong? Almost nothing. Now why don’t you all quiet down?”
Hammerstein, whom de Mille described as “quietly giving off intelligence like a stove,” wrote his son, serving overseas in the Navy, “I think I have something this time.”
The show opened in New Haven on March 11, 1943, to audience enthusiasm and critical approval. Like all musicals in the process of creation, it ran too long and dragged in spots, but the changes made on the road were relatively small. To speed up the second act, they cut one song and reprised instead the first act’s big duet, “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
And they added one new one, “Oklahoma.” At first it was staged as a solo for Alfred Drake, but it was soon converted into a rousing full-company chorus number. They also changed the show’s title. It had opened in New Haven as Away We Go! , a name that no one liked. Many wanted to call the show Oklahoma , and everyone agreed when someone—apparently Hammerstein, but there is some confusion—suggested adding the most famous exclamation point in Broadway history.
Moving to Boston, the show was even better received than in New Haven, and the biggest problem was a wave of illness that swept through the chorus and others. Dorothy Hammerstein even had to be hospitalized.
If her husband was calm on the outside, he knew he had more riding on Oklahoma! than anyone else. If it was a seventh flop, he might well never get to write another Broadway show. A few hours before they left for New York and the opening, Hammerstein and his wife took a walk near their farm in Pennsylvania. “I don’t know what to do if they don’t like this,” he told her. “I don’t know what to do because this is the only kind of show I can write.”
At the St. James Theatre that night, Hammerstein, as was his custom, sat calmly in the orchestra, holding hands with Dorothy. Rodgers and most of the others paced the back of the theater. The overture over, the curtain went up to reveal an old lady churning butter on the front porch of a farmhouse. Off in the wings a baritone voice could be heard singing a cappella, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …”
Hammerstein once said that if you get a musical off on the right foot, you can read to the audience from the Manhattan phone book for the next forty-five minutes and still not lose them. But if you get off on the wrong foot, it’s uphill work for the rest of the show. Perhaps that is why he spent three full weeks writing the words to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!”
His inspiration was Lynn Riggs’s stage directions for Green Grow the Lilacs , which Hammerstein liked so much he thought it a pity the audience didn’t get to hear them. “It is a radiant summer morning,” Riggs had written, “several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of the earth, men, cattle in a meadow, blades of the young corn, streams—makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away.”
The song, of course, became world famous virtually overnight, and it is impossible for us today to comprehend how fresh and captivating it must have sounded to that first-night audience of fifty years ago, virtually none of whom had ever heard it before. But in those first few moments they were transported by it, away from a New York theater and the blood and horror of the Second World War and off to an Oklahoma farm at the turn of the century where the biggest problem around was whether Curly could persuade Laurey to go with him to the box social that night.
And from those first few moments, too, Rodgers and Hammerstein had the audience in the palm of their hand. “Not only could I see it and hear it,” Hammerstein remembered of the audience’s reaction, “I could feel it. The glow was like the light from a thousand lanterns. You could feel the glow, it was that bright.”
Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times drama critic for many years, believed that it was this very song that changed the history of musical theater.Quotingthe song’s last verse, “All the sounds of the earth are like music—/All the sounds of the earth are like music./The breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree/And an ol’ weepin’ wilier is laughing at me!”
Atkinson wrote, “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.”
Thus the importance of Oklahoma! to the American musical theater can be simply stated. All musicals written before it immediately seemed old-fashioned, even, in some ways, Show Boat . No musical written since has been unaffected by it.
It is not that it had the greatest score in Broadway history, although it’s probably on most people’s top-ten list. It was not the first musical to incorporate elements of the classical ballet ( On Your Toes did that in 1936). Its plot was not very original indeed, it was basically boy-meets-girl. It was not the first musical to be set in a genuine American past ( Show Boat had done that in 1927).
Rather, what Oklahoma! did was to weave these elements together into a seamless web of theatrical magic that was, in its whole, strikingly original. Further, because it had been written as dramatic logic rather than Broadway musical convention dictated, it liberated the Broadway musical forever from much of that very convention.
This in turn—thanks in part, of course, to the staggering commercial success of the show—stimulated a burst of creativity at the hands of not only Oklahoma! ’s own authors but Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, Burton Lane, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg, Frank Loesser, Jule Stein, Comden and Greene, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, and many others as well.
Thus Oklahoma! proved to be nothing less than the beautiful morning of the golden age of the Broadway musical. And if Oklahoma! is not itself the greatest modern musical ever written—a decision for the eye and ear of the beholder—it is without doubt the immediate artistic ancestor of any conceivable claimant to that title.
Premier: March 31, 1943
Theater: St. James Theater
Music by: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Choreography by: Agnes de Mille
Produced by: The Theatre Guild
- Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'
- The Surrey with the Fringe on Top
- Kansas City
- I Cain't Say No
- People Will Say We're in Love
- Lonely Room
- The Farmer and the Cowman
In the decade before “Oklahoma!” opened, not a single hit show ran over 500 performances “Oklahoma!” ran for 2,212. Even the songs, which Rodgers and Hammerstein worked so hard to keep within the context of the setting, broke out to achieve extraordinary popularity the self-defensive love song “People Will Say We’re in Love” was a number-one song in 1943 and “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” also topped the charts. “Oklahoma!” was more than a hit — it was the first real phenomenon in modern Broadway history.
Selected Original Cast:
Alfred Drake (Curly McLain), Joan Roberts (Laurey Williams), Joseph Buloff (Ali Hakim), Howard Da Silva (Jud Fry), Lee Dixon (Will Parker), Betty Garde (Aunt Eller), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie Carnes)
After the enormous success of "Cats", "Les Mis" and "Phantom", producers began to assume that the key to Broadway success was creating shows that were huge and that more intimate shows didn't really stand a chance. Then along came "Avenue Q", which not only won the Tony Award for Best Musical (over "Wicked", of all things), but also went on to a highly successful Broadway run, followed by an Off-Broadway transfer that is still running today. Suddenly people saw that small, smart musicals could make money, which led to the financial success of such shows as "Once", "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", and "Next to Normal".