Is It Time to Revisit Oklahoma?

ByHarriet Schlader

75 years and counting … what is it about this show that endures?

Todd Purdum, in his book, Something Wonderful, details the journey to Broadway of the worldwide musical phenomenon called Oklahoma! In a recent article in The New York Times, he calls it “The ‘Hamilton’ of World War II.”  It changed Broadway musicals forever.  Previously, the typical Broadway show had featured comedy and songs loosely tied together with a fluffy plot, and heavily featuring scantily clad chorus girls.

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There had been one or two exceptions, notably Show Boat (1936, by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern) and Pal Joey (1940, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.)  Both shows deviated from the norm in that they dealt with substantive and thought-provoking issues.  And they left both Rodgers and Hammerstein thinking about writing shows they believed in.  After Theatre Guild partners Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner presented Lynn Riggs’ play, Green Grow the Lilacs, they approached Rodgers with the play, which he loved and thought would make a terrific musical.  Hammerstein was also familiar with the play and liked it.

Birth of Broadway’s Most Famous Writing Partnership

Dick Rodgers was in need of a new collaborator after Lorenz Hart had become lost in the depths of alcoholism.  Hammerstein hadn’t had a solid hit since Show Boat, and was delighted to accept a lunch invitation from Rodgers to discuss teaming up. That lunch was the beginning of one of the most successful partnerships in the history of musical theater.  The two met at Rodgers’ country home in Connecticut under the shade of an oak tree, and every day for the next six or eight weeks they discussed Green Grow the Lilacs.  They changed some of the character’s names and added characters like Ado Annie and Will Parker and changed the peddler Ali Hakim from Syrian to Persian.  Finally, they separated so that Hammerstein could work on the lyrics.  Oscar was a disciplined worker and a wordsmith.  It took three painstaking weeks for him to finish the lyrics for “Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’.”  He sent it off to Dick Rodgers, who was so moved that it took him all of ten minutes to come up with the melody.

As an interesting aside, Rodgers, who was an excellent accompanist, decided around this time that he needed to take some piano lessons from Herman Wasserman, a virtuoso teacher whose students had included George Gershwin.  With Wasserman, Rodgers explored the melodies and harmonies of Brahms and Schumann, which added a new richness and seriousness to his work.  In the meantime, Hammerstein went back to the original script instead of Broadway conventions for inspiration.  Instead of opening the show with a dazzling song and dance number, he opened Act I with Aunt Eller, onstage alone, churning butter!  Never before had an opening been so simple.  Curly enters singing “Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’,” and finally Laurey comes on to spar and tease Curly.  The combination of the soaring classical music influence and a naturalistic setting created something entirely new.

Contrary to the normal practice of Broadway collaborators of the time, in this show the lyrics came before the melodies.  In only one song, “People Will Say We’re In Love,” did Rodgers write the music first. Oscar Hammerstein made painstaking efforts to write just the right lyrics to propel the story.  The two would discuss, at length, what they wanted to achieve to advance the plot, and Oscar would then make lists and lists of words and phrases before he chose just the right ones for lyrics and dialogue.

Revolutionizing Broadway on a Shoestring Budget

Putting together the rest of the creative team was equally crucial and equally daunting.  The production budget of $90,000 was very small even at that time, and precluded hiring any superstars. Rouben Mamoulian, who had teamed with Rodgers and Hart on the film Love Me Tonight and had won critical acclaim for his direction of George Gershwin’s 1935 Porgy and Bess, was hired to direct.  Scenic designer Lemuel Ayers would make use of the least expensive form of stagecraft: painted backdrops.  Costumer Miles White would design costumes that brought to mind pictures by Grant Wood.

And finally and famously, there was Agnes de Mille.  She was relative newcomer to Broadway but an experienced choreographer in the ballet world, and an accomplished dancer in her own right.  She loved the idea of dances becoming an integral part of the storytelling and not just a frilly showcase for pretty chorus girls.  She wanted real ballet dancers and was willing to fight for what she needed, including complete control in the casting of her dancers.  She refused to use any chorus cuties who were cast to satisfy the extracurricular pleasures of Richard Rodgers or Lawrence Langner, who always had favorites and would have been prime targets for the “Me Too” movement, had it existed.  In fact, if strong-minded and outspoken Agnes de Mille had been the object of their advances, it’s quite likely the “Me Too” era would have started 75 years ago.

Agnes was paid $1,500 to choreograph the show and a $50 a week bonus after the opening.  Eventually she received a one-half percent royalty for all New York and the nine years of major touring productions. But she felt she was short changed….and she was.  Her 13-minute “dream ballet” eliminated the need for pages and pages of awkward dialogue to advance the story in a meaningful way, and revolutionized the role of dance on Broadway.  Many, many years later she received a lump payment for her work but even that was a gesture of conciliation and not equal to her contribution to the long term success of this musical.

68_80_5483.jpgOklahoma’s First Cast

Now casting began. Mary Martin and and Shirley Temple both turned down the role of Laurey.  In the end, since there was no money for big stars anyway, the performers who were cast were all “up and coming”:  Joan Roberts, Alfred Drake, Lee Dixon, Howard Da Silva, Joseph Buloff. They tried to get Charlotte Greenwood for Aunt Eller (she later played the role in the movie), but she was unavailable and they cast Betty Garde.

Finally came Celeste Holm, auditioning for the soubrette role of Ado Annie.  She was just 25 years old, and had recently appeared in the Theatre Guild’s production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life with Gene Kelly. Holm had been warned not to sing a Rodgers song, since he was known to be finicky about how his his own music was performed, but she was also warned not to sing anything by another popular composer.  She chose a Schubert art song, “Who Is Sylvia?”  As she headed to the stage, she tripped and fell down a short flight of steps, music flying.  “That was funny,” Rodgers told her.  “Could you do it again?”  But he was concerned by her singing.  He could see that she had training and asked her to sing it again as if she never had a lesson, more like a bold farm girl.  In response, Holm blurted out, “I can call a hog!”  Rodgers dared her and she did…. and she got the part!

Raising The Money and Fixing The Show

The rehearsal process began and so did the raising of money.  The show became known up and down Broadway as “Helburn’s Folly” because its unconventionality made it seem risky to investors. On the way to yet another backers’ audition, Theresa Helburn asked Oscar if he could write a song about the earth.  Oscar was taken aback and at first thought it was a stupid idea, but two days later he wrote the title song, a stirring hymn to the land and the possibility of statehood and a new life for those pioneers who moved west.  The idea that a new state required people to work together solidified as a central idea in the play and was realized in two Act II songs, “Farmer and the Cowman” and “Oklahoma.”

Out of town tryouts began in New Haven, Connecticut. The audiences were responsive and the reviews were positive, but Act II was still too long and needed more tweaking. The director had brought in a flock of pigeons to create atmosphere in Act II but they escaped up into the fly space and remained there for weeks, dropping gifts from above!  In spite of the fallout from that mistake, he was not fired and eventually made some changes that saved the show.  He cut a forgettable number called “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” and replaced it with the beautiful reprise “Let People Say We’re In Love.”

Then one of the cast members suggested that “Oklahoma” be staged with the entire cast strung across the stage singing the letters one by one.  The director loved the idea and called back the orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, to rework the number.  He had already finished his job in New Haven, but on the train on the way back to Boston, he rewrote the orchestration for the number.  An orchestrator does to a melody what an artist does to a sketch she is turning into an oil painting.  The artist uses color and detail and texture; the orchestrator uses the sounds of specific musical instruments.  What Bennett accomplished on that train to Boston absolutely changed the title song, and brought the finale to life.

The Show That Changed Everything

Opening night was not sold out.  The people who attended were critics, friends of the cast, and servicemen who were given comps to attend.  The audience was enthralled and on their feet by the time “Farmer and the Cow Man Should Be Friends” was over, but “Oklahoma” really did it and people left the theater on such a high!  The show was a sensation and the seemingly endless demand for tickets became the stuff of legend.  The show won a special honorary Pulitzer Prize and ran for a record-breaking 2,212 performances — five years and nine weeks.  The touring company ran for nine years to packed houses, touring at the same time the Broadway company was still selling out.  By 1949, a year after the Broadway run ended, Hammerstein estimated that the producers and backers had collectively earned more than $4 million, not counting his and Rodger’s authors’ royalties, an unheard-of sum at the time.

Servicemen, heading overseas to fight and perhaps lose their lives, equated their situation with the spirit of the pioneers who went west and risked everything to find a better life.  They believed in their country and wanted to protect the values they cherished.  Oklahoma! was a pep rally for servicemen to go forward with resolve and belief in what they would be doing.

Just as Hamilton has changed musical theater this century, Oklahoma changed musical theater during World War II.  It is a show worth revisiting, and we hope you enjoy the ride!

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OKLAHOMA! runs July 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15 at 8pm at Woodminster Amphitheater in Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland.

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