(The images below are thumbnails click on them to
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Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts
(in the surrey with a fringe on top) surrounded by other members of the
original cast on the Playbill for Oklahoma!
Richard Rodgers and
Oscar Hammerstein II had known each other
since they worked on varsity shows at Columbia University. Since
then, both had deferred to songwriting collaborators who preferred to have the
music written before the lyric. They now set out to prove that a "lyrics first"
approach would make it easier to integrate songs into a libretto. (British giants
Gilbert and Sullivan had done this long before, but in the 1940s it was considered a
daring idea for Broadway songwriters.)
Rodgers and Hammerstein felt that the unsuccessful play
Green Grow the Lilacs needed something other than the standard musical comedy
treatment. The plot involved an Oklahoma Territory farm girl of the early 1900s
(Laurie) deciding whether she will go to a dance with the farmhand she fears
(Jeeter in the play; Judd in the musical) or the cowboy she loves (Curly). This
story takes a jarring turn when the farmhand proves to be a psychopathic murderer
who the heroic cowboy is forced to kill in self defense. Murder in a musical?
Another sticking point was that Hollywood had turned singing cowboys into a cliché.
Could this story sing on Broadway?
The new collaborators began with a painstaking assessment of what made
the characters tick, where songs would fit and what the style and content of each number should
be. They also visualized possibilities for casting, set design, lighting and staging. Once
they had agreed on these points, each headed home -- Rodgers to his farm in upstate New York,
Hammerstein to his farm in Pennsylvania. Oscar fashioned the book and lyrics with great care,
laboring for weeks over certain phrases and rhymes. He then either telegraphed or phoned in the
results to Rodgers, who had been mulling over melodic options and would sometimes have a completed
tune on paper in a matter of minutes.
Because the Theatre Guild was bankrupt, its mangers gave Rodgers and Hammerstein creative
control of the project. With little to lose, R&H took several artistic risks. Instead of
opening with the usual ensemble number, the curtain would rise on a farm woman churning
butter as a cowboy enters singing a solo about the beauty of the morning. Hammerstein's lyrics
were in a conversational style, each custom designed to fit specific characters and situations.
Despite strong comic material ("I Cain’t Say No")
and a healthy dose of romance ("People Will Say We’re In Love," "Out
of My Dreams") this show was neither a typical musical comedy nor an operetta. This was
something new, a fully rounded musical play,
with every element dedicated to organically moving the story forward. Hammerstein had tried
something similar in his libretto to Show Boat (1927), but many of those
characters were two dimensional and the plot relied on melodramatic devices. This time around,
he was taking things much farther.
Hoping to boost ticket sales, the Guild wanted a well-known star like Shirley Temple, but
R&H insisted on casting lesser-known actors suited to the material. To direct, R&H chose
the tempestuous Rouben Mamoulian, whose work on stage
(Porgy and Bess) and screen (Love Me Tonight) was always innovative
but not always profitable. Since the characters in this story would be dealing with
emotions that might sound awkward if verbalized by cowboys and farm girls, Rodgers and
Hammerstein decided to use dance as an integral element in the story-telling process.
The Theatre Guild suggested modern dance choreographer
Agnes DeMille. R&H were uneasy about DeMille's
insistence on selecting trained modern dancers in place of the standard chorus kids, but
the resulting personality-rich ensemble was a key factor in the show's eventual fate.
All these high-minded choices made Away We Go (as the musical
was initially named) a tough sell to investors. Rodgers and Hammerstein spent months
auditioning the material for potential backers, and the Theatre Guild had to
sell off its beloved theater to satisfy anxious debtors.
Out of Town: "No Chance!"
One of several Playbill covers that Oklahoma! used in
the course of its record setting run, this captures the logo used on the
When Away We Go opened for
previews in New Haven in March 1943, Variety gave it a poor review and
columnist Walter Winchell reported his secretary's cold dismissal (which would
eventually be attributed to at least a dozen other sources) "No gags,
no girls, no chance."
A few investors panicked and sold off their shares in the show, but many at that first
performance realized that this unusual musical had potential. R&H made extensive revisions while
the show played Boston. At the suggestion of an ensemble member, a minor number was re-set as a
choral piece. When DeMille staged the revised song with the chorus coming down
to the footlights in a V formation singing "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma!
Yeeeow!," the rousing number left audiences cheering and gave the show a new
title. The creative team continued tinkering until one night an exhausted Rodgers put
his foot down, saying, "You know what's wrong with this show?
Nothing! Now everybody pipe down and let's go to bed."
Oklahoma! (1943 - 2,212 perfs) opened at New York's
St. James Theatre on the night of March 31st, 1943.
The house was not sold out with no known stars in the cast, it was
difficult to even give seats away. Those who did attend found themselves
cheering a surprise hit.
"They were roaring. They were
howling. People hadn't seen boys and girls dance like this in so long.
Of course, they had been dancing like this, but just not where the
audience could see them!"
-Agnes DeMille, quoted by Max Wilk in OK: The Story of Oklahoma!
(New York: Grove Press, 1993), p. 222.
As the brash but loveable Curly, baritone
began his reign as Broadway's top male musical star and as the playful Ado Annie,
Celeste Holm earned the stardom she would retain
on stage and screen into the next century. The reviews were almost unanimous raves,
and block-long lines formed at the box office the next day.
Wartime audiences embraced this
reassuring, all-American show, and the skeptics who had scoffed in New Haven
pretended that they always knew "Dick and Oscar" were a sure-fire combination.
Oklahoma became a cultural phenomenon, setting a new long-run record
for Broadway musicals. It also ran for three years in London, toured the U.S. for
seven years and made its millions of dollars. By the time the run ended, backers saw an
astounding 2,500% return on their investment.
Before Oklahoma, Broadway composers and lyricists were songwriters
after Oklahoma, they had to be dramatists, using everything in the
score to develop character and advance the action. As Mark Steyn explains in
Broadway Babies Say Goodnight (Routledge, NY, 1999, p.67), with
songs by Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter, you hear the lyricist with Hammerstein,
you hear the characters.
In fact, everything in a musical now had to serve a dramatic
purpose. The diverting dance routines of the past were replaced by choreography
that helped tell the show's story. Any number of earlier shows had attempted a
book-driven approach, but they showcased particular performers in songs
and scenes that did not always serve the story. For example, the original Show Boat
gave Captain Andy excuses to clown around, and Lady in the Dark gave both Danny
Kaye and Gertrude Lawrence star turns that had nothing to do with the plot.
Oklahoma rejected such high jinks, tossing out anything which did not fit the plot or
bring characters into sharper focus.
The union of two sympathetic
temperaments created the first all-American, non-Broadway musical comedy (or
operetta; call it what you will) independent of Viennese comic opera or
French opéra-bouffe on the one hand, and Forty-fourth Street clichés and
specifications on the other. Oklahoma! turned out to be a people's opera,
unpretentious and perfectly modern, but of interest equally to audiences in
New York and Des Moines. Its longevity and sustained popular appeal are
explained by the fact that it transcends the outlook of Broadway musical
comedy without disturbingly violating the canons of presentation to which
the musical comedy public is conditioned.
- Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America (New York: Theatre Arts
Books, 1950), p. 343-344.
Old-style formula musical comedies like No, No, Nanette and
Anything Goes can be very entertaining, but their
one-dimensional characters are like comic book figures, eliciting little
sympathy. When Oklahoma's Laurie and Curly admit their love by singing
"Let People Say We're In Love,"
audiences become a sea of smiles and moist eyes. This same holds true for the other
classic musicals by R&H and their successors the major characters are
believable individuals that we can empathize with. Rodgers and Hammerstein
often dealt with serious themes, but they knew that the first duty of theatre (musical or
otherwise) is to tell interesting stories about fascinating characters.
While Rodgers and Hammerstein were not
saints, they had genuine faith in the qualities espoused in their shows
goodness, fairness, romance, etc. Now dismissed as cornball
or "hokey," such things meant a great deal in the mid-20th Century, and they
keep the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein popular today.
Rodgers had his own view, as expressed in his autobiography
. . . I feel that the chief influence of
Oklahoma! was simply to serve notice that when writers came up with
something different, and if it had merit, there would be a large and
receptive audience waiting for it. Librettists, lyricists and composers now
had a new incentive to explore a multitude of themes and techniques within
the framework of commercial musical theater. From
Oklahoma! on, with only rare exceptions, the memorable productions
have been those daring to break free of the conventional mold.
- Richard Rodgers, Musical Stages (NY: Random House,
1975), p. 229.
The original cast sings the rousing "Oklahoma!" as seen
on the cover of the best-selling cast album, released on 78 rpm
Record producer Jack Kapp came up with the idea
of having the Broadway team preserve the full score as it was heard in performance.
A few productions had released partial recordings beginning with the
1932 revival of Show Boat, but Oklahoma was the first Broadway
musical to have every major number recorded by the original cast and orchestra.
In 1943, sets of 78's were packaged in book-like packs that looked
like family photo albums. After long playing records were introduced in the late
1940s, the phrase "album" stuck. Musicals and those who
love them owe Kapp a debt of gratitude for inventing the original cast album,
a format that preserved hundreds of musicals which might otherwise have fallen silent
with their final performances.
In one of Broadway's sadder footnotes,
Larry Hart was in
the audience on Oklahoma's opening night, sober and
stunned by its triumph. He agreed to help Rodgers prepare a revival of
A Connecticut Yankee (1943 - 135), revising the script and giving longtime
friend Vivienne Segal the
new comic showstopper "To Keep My Love Alive."
But Hart was soon drinking again, and he showed up for Yankee's opening
night falling-down drunk. During the second act, he started singing along from the rear of
the theatre and was ejected. After spending the night on his brother's sofa, Larry
disappeared, and was found the next night sitting coatless on a Manhattan curbside in an
icy November downpour. Weakened by years of alcohol addiction, Hart succumbed to pneumonia
and died three days later. He was 48 years old.
Hart's death signified the end of an era. The musical comedy had
been a prime Broadway product since the late 1800s. Rodgers & Hart had
created some of the finest expressions of that genre. In the wake of artistic upheaval
unleashed by Oklahoma, the Broadway musical entered a new golden commercial and
artistic age -- with Rodgers and Hammerstein serving as the first true masters of the new
integrated musical play.
Next: 1940s Part III Many a New