By Keith Mason
Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first full-length professional collaboration and America’s most popular folk musical, marks its 70 anniversary on March 31. While new audiences keep discovering it, old audiences keep returning to it. This article outlines the history of Oklahoma! and offers activities for the performing arts curriculum.
History and Background
Oklahoma!, originally entitled Away We Go from a square dance call, is based on the mildly successful folk play Green Grow the Lilacs (1931) by Lynn Riggs. Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild believed that the Riggs play would fare better as a musical so she approached Rodgers with the idea. He reacted positively to the idea of writing the music but his partner and lyricist Lorenz Hart thought the play would fail as a musical. Hart’s attitude prompted Rodgers to approach Oscar Hammerstein to inquire about collaborating with him, thus paving the way for what would become a seventeen-year partnership [see the sidebar “The Works of Rodgers and Hammerstein” for details about their 11 collaborations].
Hammerstein was not only a lyricist but also a librettist, an added advantage to a budding partnership. Ironically, Hammerstein had tried to convince his regular collaborator Jerome Kern to make a musical out of Green Grow the Lilacs and Kern, like Hart, did not approve of the idea.
In 1943, Rodgers found himself with two partners for two separate ventures. Originally, Rodgers was set to do the music, Hart the lyrics, and Hammerstein the book for Oklahoma! Ultimately, Hart rejected the project opting instead to partner with Rodgers to produce a remake of A Connecticut Yankee. Reportedly, this kept Hart working and helped make him not feel excluded while Rodgers worked on Oklahoma! with Hammerstein, a reluctant replacement for Hart who originally declined the offer to collaborate with Rodgers. Rodgers and Hammerstein met at Columbia University when they worked on varsity shows there. Hammerstein, who, like Hart, was seven years older than Rodgers, had worked mainly with Otto Harbach and Kern prior to his partnership with Rodgers. His first musical Always You was done with Herbert Stothart. Five musicals, four of which were major productions in the ‘20s, were written with Harbach: Tickle Me, Wildflower, Rose-Marie, Sunny, and The Desert Song. Hammerstein then wrote both book and lyrics and Kern composed for Show Boat, Sweet Adeline, Music in the Air, and Very Warm for May.
Oklahoma! opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre, changing musical theatre forever by being hailed as a seamlessly perfect integration of character, story, music, and dance into a cohesive whole. Previous audiences attended musicals simply to enjoy the songs and dances; they attended straight plays for dramatic storylines. Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, also described Oklahoma! in a similar vein: “Oklahoma! was hailed as revolutionary, an odd word, perhaps, to describe a musical play about plain and simple territory folk. But the revolution was simply that all the elements – music, spoken words, sung words, dancing, orchestrations, vocal and dance arrangements, scenery, costumes, etc. – were blended into one cohesive artistic whole for the first time… It may have seemed like an invisible revolution, but once the show opened the musical theatre was never the same again.” Easton (1996:207) also observed that “Oklahoma! was the first musical in which the libretto, score, character development, plot development, decor, stage direction, and choreography all came together: the show worked seamlessly as a whole, without sacrificing the integrity of its parts.”
Oklahoma! is considered by Ethan Mordden, a prominent author and musical theatre historian, to be one of the most popular American musicals. Max Wilk, a playwright, screenwriter and author of several books on the subject believes that Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music are Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most enduring musicals. Wilk (1993:257) also observed that Oklahoma! is clearly the most popular work in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue. [The sidebar “An Oklahoma! Chronology” provides details about this classic musical.]
Oklahoma! features Curly, a cowboy, who wants to take Laurey, a farm girl, to the box social. She plays hard to get and instead accepts an invitation from farmhand Jud Fry. Another cowboy, Will Parker, is interested in Ado Annie, a local girl, but she falls for any man who pays attention to her. Laurey has a change of heart about Jud, not only leaving him behind but also firing him. She decides to marry Curly when he proposes marriage. The two marry but not without problems: Jud tries to kill Curly but dies in the process. The newlyweds leave for their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on the top that is sung about in one of the show’s most recognizable songs, also a favorite of Hammerstein’s.
The cast members of Oklahoma! were unknowns: Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm, and Howard da Silva. When the show opened in New Haven at the Shubert Theatre prior to its Broadway run, critic Walter Winchell declared “no legs, no jokes, no chance.” Mordden (1976) believes this critique to be misleading because the out-of-town audiences liked Oklahoma!, and very few revisions were made before the Broadway opening.
The Oklahoma! score includes “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” “Oklahoma,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Out Of My Dreams,” “Many A New Day,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
Mordden (1993) sums up the innovations of Oklahoma!: “Like Show Boat, but better than Show Boat, Oklahoma! told its American grass roots tale in the language of the fruited plain, lighter in tone than Green Grow the Lilacs, with dream ballet, murder, and chorus of farmers and cowmen all playing exactly their parts in the story, and no more or less. The seams of musical comedy craftsmanship did not show this time because this one was not a patchwork in the way that nearly all musicals were before.”
In search of a choreographer, Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Helburn went to see Rodeo, which Agnes de Mille both performed in and choreographed in 1942. The trio was impressed with de Mille’s work and hired her to choreograph Oklahoma! The musical put de Mille on the map because of its rave reviews and the fact that it made dance an integral component of musical theatre. De Mille went on to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 1945, and Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon in 1947, the latter pair’s first big hit. De Mille also directed and choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 musical Allegro.
Regarding Oklahoma!, de Mille observed, “It rolled… from the twittering prelude and “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin;” right through to that joyous reprise of the title song for a finale, the story flowed in one straight line. It never bored. It never tried too hard or traded glitz for glow. It rolled.”
The director, Rouben Mamoulian, and choreographer de Mille brought the show together, although with some altercations. The same production team produced both Oklahoma! and Carousel. Mordden (1976:188) believes that people did not realize how different Oklahoma! was until later. He observed that “Oklahoma! was a fresh use of a familiar medium, not an offshoot, nor a new idea, but very solidly constructed and beautifully, sparingly produced.” Louis Untemeyer remembered, “When the idea for Oklahoma! was first broached, no one was aware that an American classic was in the making” (cited in Matthew-Walker 1996:141).
In terms of de Mille’s choreography, the end of Act I ballet “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” helps develop the action psychologically. Easton (1996:201) describes the dream ballet as representing a young woman’s repressed sexuality and her conflicting longings. The 18-minute ballet was set to medleys from the musical score including “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Dream ballets had been used before on Broadway: George Balanchine’s in Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, and I Married an Angel, Robert Alton’s in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, and Albertina Rasch’s three in Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. However, with the new standard set by de Mille’s Act I ballet, 46 of 72 Broadway musicals to open within three-and-a-half years of Oklahoma! included ballet; 21 of these featured dream sequences.
In addition to the ballet, de Mille devised other dances such as a two-step for Will and Aunt Eller, ragtime for Will and four cowboys, a waltz for Curly and Gertie, a spritely dance for Laurey and her girlfriends, an up tempo dance for Ado Annie and Will, and two square dances for the ensembles. In all, de Mille developed 40 minutes worth of dances for the show, nearly half of which were cut before opening night.
Musical and Performing Arts Activities
Many have argued that the strength of Oklahoma! comes from its songs, most of which are considered standards that are now universally familiar. Mordden (1976:189) describes the Oklahoma! music and lyrics as “marvelous.” He describes Hammerstein’s lyrics as “sunny” and Rodgers’ folk-inflected tunes as “a cunning craftsmanship.” He also compares the Oklahoma! score with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece Carousel as follows: “There is a depth of feeling to its ballads that is lacking in Oklahoma!– properly lacking, for Oklahoma! is a happy show with a few scary moments while Carousel is tragic throughout.”
The following areas can serve as a guide for Oklahoma! lessons within the music and performing arts curriculum:
How are song lyrics in Oklahoma! used to develop the characters of Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller, Jud Fry, Ado Annie, and Will Parker?
Which musical numbers in Oklahoma! feature dancing? What types of dances are found and what song tempos are associated with the various types of dances?
Consider the use of ballet within well known musical theatre pieces similar to Oklahoma! Look at these ballets in the movie versions of the following: Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, The King and I, Babes in Arms, Flower Drum Song, and Can-Can. Who choreographed the original stage versions of these ballets? And the movie versions? Were any ballets cut for the movie version or added? Watch the dream ballet scene “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” in the film version, a live performance, or the 1998 London production of Oklahoma! Write about the images you see, interpreting them within the context of the story. What song melodies are used during the dream ballet?
Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma! Find out more about her, her famous relative, and other works she did, especially for Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Choose one favorite song from the Oklahoma! score and write an interpretation of the lyrics and orchestration.
The song “Oklahoma!” has been called the showstopper in Oklahoma! Find out about this song: when was it added to the show and what effect did it have on the show? The title of the musical was changed because of this song.
Undoubtedly, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music has left a permanent mark on the music of the twentieth century in general, and on musical theatre in particular. Oklahoma! changed musical theatre forever by integrating character development with the songs, dance, dialog, and artistic aspects of the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration can truly enhance the performing arts curriculum. “Oklahoma! OK!”
Keith Mason, Ph.D. teaches World Languages at New Providence High School in New Providence, New Jersey. Dr. Mason has received eight Rising Star Awards for Educational Impact from the Paper Mill Playhouse for integrating his school’s musicals into the high school curriculum. He has authored many articles about using musicals in the interdisciplinary curriculum.