APPRECIATION: Sunday Marks 70th Anniversary of Game-Changing Musical ‘Oklahoma!’

  • By David M. Kinchen 
APPRECIATION: Sunday Marks 70th Anniversary of Game-Changing Musical 'Oklahoma!'
 My wife kids me mercilessly about my love of musicals. I’ve raved to her about the new “Les Miserables” and promised to get her the DVD — whether she wants it or not! The other night I tuned in Turner Classic Movies to watch  a mostly forgotten 1930 musical called “Spring Is Here” to catch the lead duet of Lawrence Gray and Bernice Claire singing the Rodgers and Hart classic “With a Song in My Heart,” reminding Liz that it’s one of the songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald in her two disc collection of songs from the Rodgers and Hart songbook — which I treasure. As if she cares! (link to YouTube of the Gray-Claire duet:

So when I note that Sunday, March 31, 2013 is the 70th anniversary of the Broadway opening of “Oklahoma!” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II — the first collaboration between the two men — I expect you music lovers out there to care, even if Liz doesn’t.

Coincidentally, there’s a connection between the 2012 “Les Miserables” and “Oklahoma!”: Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables”, played Curly McLain in the 1998 West End (English) revival of “Oklahoma!” This production was filmed and was  issued on DVD, as well as being broadcast on U.S. Public Television in November 2003. I’m going to try to get it, since the 1998 production features the original orchestrations by Rodney Russell Bennett.

Here’s more background by native Oklahoman Carrie Magness Radna  on “Oklahoma!” which didn’t get its title until it opened on Broadway; it was called “Away We Go” in its Boston tryout:

“Away We Go” — oops, “Oklahoma!” was produced by the Theatre Guild and according to Wikipedia “was based on  Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs” that had a short run in a Theatre Guild production. Set in Oklahoma Territory outside the town of Claremore in 1906, it tells the story of cowboy Curly McLain and his romance with farm girl Laurey Williams. A secondary romance concerns cowboy Will Parker and his flirtatious fiancée, Ado Annie.

“The original Broadway production opened on March 31, 1943. It was a box-office smash and ran for an unprecedented 2,243 performances, later enjoying award-winning revivals, national tours, foreign productions and an Academy Award-winning 1955 film adaptation. It has long been a popular choice for school and community productions.

“This musical, building on the innovations of the earlier “Show Boat” [by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II], epitomized the development of the ‘book musical’, a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story with serious dramatic goals that are able to evoke genuine emotions other than laughter. In addition, ‘Oklahoma!’ features musical themes, or motifs, that recur throughout the work to connect the music and story. A fifteen-minute “dream ballet” reflects Laurey’s struggle to choose between two men. A special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for Oklahoma! in the category of “Special Awards And Citations – Letters” in 1944.”

The original Broadway production opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre in New York City. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by Agnes de Mille. It starred Alfred Drake (Curly), Joan Roberts (Laurey), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie), Howard Da Silva (Jud Fry), Betty Garde (Aunt Eller), Lee Dixon (Will Parker), Joseph Bulloff (Ali Hakim), Jane Lawrence (Gertie) and Barry Kelley (Ike). Marc Platt danced the role of “Dream Curly”, Katharine Sergava danced the part of “Dream Laurey” and the small dancing part of Aggie was played by Bambi Linn. George Church danced the part of “Dream Jud” but was replaced by Vladimir Kostenko only two months after the premiere.

The production ran for 2,243 performances, finally closing on May 29, 1948.  “The demand for tickets was unprecedented as the show became more popular in the months that followed” the opening. Oklahoma! ran for over five years, a Broadway record that “would not be bested until “My Fair Lady” (1956).” A year and a half after the Broadway opening, the “first of several” national tours began in New Haven, Connecticut.

“Productions of ‘Oklahoma!’ would remain on the road in the United States and Canada” through 1954.     A 1953 article in The New York Times reported that the show “not only holds the record for the longest run of a musical on Broadway but is believed to be the only musical to have enjoyed a consecutive run of ten years. It ran on Broadway for five years and two months, grossing $7,000,000.
The tour of the national company, which started late in 1943, has grossed $15,000,000.” And that was before a mediocre seat for a Broadway production could easily top $100 (I paid $80 for a high up in the seats of the Majestic Theater to see “The Phantom of the Opera” in 2007) .  The Tony Awards and other awards now given for achievement in musical theatre were not in existence in 1943, and therefore the original production of Oklahoma! received no theatrical awards.Songs from “Oklahoma!” include the title piece, now the state song of Oklahoma; “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”; “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “All Er Nuthin'”; “The Farmer and the Cowman”; “Many a New Day”; “I Cain’t Say No”;  “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, etc. etc.


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