Oklahoma!

Oklahoma! transformed the world of musical theater in more ways than one.

Richard Rodgers was interested in adapting the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs into a piece for musical theater.  However, his writing partner Lorenz Hart had no interest in the project.

Rodgers and Hammerstein
Rodgers and Hammerstein

Oscar Hammerstein II expressed interest, but his writing partner Jerome Kern was not interested.

The project was shelved for a while, but later Rodgers returned to the piece.  He teamed with Hammerstein and they formed what would become one of the most revolutionary and successful partnerships in the history of musical theater.

Rodgers & Hammerstein {R&H}  felt the show needed more than the traditional treatment found in musical comedies.  They set out to determine what would make the characters tick and bring characters to life.  They also determined where songs would fit and what style would best suit that song.  The men took artistic risks with their decisions.

For the first time in a musical, each element organically moved the story forward.  This was unlike any operetta or musical comedy, although Hammerstein had revolutionized the industry with Showboat, years earlier with the introduction of the book musical. The book musical had finally arrived and reached its full development with Oklahoma!.

The story of Oklahoma! takes place as the Oklahoma territory gains statehood in 1907.  The local farmers and cowboys are pitted against one another.  The love story of Curly, a handsome cowboy, and Laurey, a local farm girl, play out throughout the musical.  A secondary romance between Will Parker and his flirtatious girlfriend/fiancée, Ado Annie, is also profiled.  The road to love is far from smooth as various obstacles and speedbumps get in the way.  In the end love prevails and the couple are determined to succeed in their life Oklahomatogether in the new state.

Dance was integrated to allow another element of showing emotions for the characters.  They were able to express themselves through movement in which they may never had through words.  The fifteen minute “dream ballet” reflects the mixed feelings Laurey has over two men, Curley and Jud.

The musical was originally titled Away We Go.  Expectations were low for the show.   There was also no star power to push the sales.

Instead of opening with a rousing ensemble number, the opening begins with Curley singing “O What a Beautiful Mornin’.”

R&H made other changes such as choosing singers who could act, instead of following the current industry standards of the day of choosing actors that could sing.

The initial reviews were harsh when the workshop previewed.  However, many investors realized the show had potential.

When choreographer Agnes DeMille revised the staging of the newly added song Oklahoma! the audiences cheered over the rousing number and R&H had a new title for their

Original cast of Oklahoma!
Original cast of Oklahoma!

musical.

The show opened March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre in New York.  Those who attended loved what was presented on the stage.  The show went on for 2,212 performances and earned the backer back a 2500% return on their investment.

The New York Times review said, “ the show’s opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” changed the history of musical theater: “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.”

In 1944, R&H won a special Pulitzer Prize for Oklahoma!

Stage version of Oklahoma! starring Hugh Jackman
Stage version of Oklahoma! starring Hugh Jackman

Oklahoma! was not only innovative, but it also set standards and established the rules for the musical theatre format we know today.

Composers and lyricists for Broadway now had to be dramatists and provide fully developed characters that advanced the action.  Even choreography was now used to help tell the story.

The state of Oklahoma officially adopted the song Oklahoma! as their state song in 1953.   It is the only official state song from a Broadway musical.

Agnes de Mille choreographed the dancing sequences
Agnes de Mille choreographed the dancing sequences

The song Oklahoma! was also voted one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time by the Western Writers of America.

In 1955, the film version of the musical was made staring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.  The two stars would also star in R&H Carousel.  The film was voted was voted a “New York Times Critics Pick”.

The show has been revived numerous times and won a variety of awards over the years.

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”.

Rodgers and Hammerstein would become masters of the new integrated musical.

Oklahoma! ushered in the Golden Age of the American musical.

 

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