This week we’re back in grade-A yeehaw mode as we discuss the musical that revolutionized the musical itself, Oklahoma! We’ll be watching an Encore performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first collaboration that paved the way for every musical that followed. Yes, even Lestat. For those who care (*looks to see nary a hand raised*), Oklahoma! is my favorite of R&H’s works. It is joyous and heartbreaking. It is colorful and bleak. It is astoundingly complex, yet straight forward. I love Oklahoma! Will there be any Disney connections this week? Who knows! Let’s hop aboard the surrey with the fringe on top and find out.
Episode 3: Oklahoma!
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music & Lyrics: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, respectively
Based on: Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grows the Lilacs
Broadway Premiere: March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre
But, like, any Tony Awards?: Honey, she was PRE-Tony Awards!
Best Song, as decided by me alone: This is my Sophie’s Choice, to be honest. I think I’m going to have to go the obvious route here and say the title track, specifically screlted (that’s scream-belted) ironically by Sutton Foster.
The story goes that the the Theatre Guild put up a production of Riggs’ play in 1931. It wasn’t super successful, and everyone moved on. Theresa Helburn, one of the producers for the guild, saw a new production ten years later that added folk songs and country dancing and a light bulb went off in her head. She decided to bring up the idea of making the play into a full-blown musical, with the hope it would help the guild from near ruin. Originally contacting Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Mr. Hart dropped out due to a lack of interest in the piece and Oscar Hammerstein II was ready to join, with Hart’s blessing. Their pair was a match made in heaven. They both agreed early on that instead of committing to the tropes that had become common with musical theater, they stuck to the source material to dictate the tone and size of production numbers. The songs would move the story along, instead of stopping for a large dance number. Thus, the modern musical was born.
With that in mind, they chose singers who could act. At the time, the comedy was more of the draw and pull for these creations, but R&H wanted the songs to carry just as much, if not more, meaning than the book itself. This led to the casting of no known stars, which was unheard of at the time (and, arguably, the norm once again). Celeste Holm was one of the breakouts, performing as Ado Annie in the original production. She later went on to win an Academy Award for Gentleman’s Agreement and star in a variety of television and film roles, including the Touchstone Pictures film Three Men and a Baby.
Agnes De Mille was also brought in as the choreographer, who helped pioneer the concept of a dream ballet. The 15-minute first-act finale told an intense story that, as discussed, furthered along the plot. This would allow the “dream ballet” as a key musical theatre puzzle piece, featured in such shows as Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, and referenced within the Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty.
The show ran for 2,212 performances, closing five years later. There have been four Broadway revivals, the most recent one being a darker interpretation of the piece with a seven-piece band instead of a full orchestra, chili & cornbread served during intermission, and a known embracement of the show’s sexuality. It picked up 2 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. The show is currently running through January 19th at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
Oklahoma! created the golden age of musical theatre and, frankly, musical theatre as a larger genre. For that, we look to every Disney musical and celebrate the one that paved the way.
The initial production ran at the St. James Theatre, the current home of Frozen. I leave you with their tribute to the 75th anniversary of Oklahoma! last year.