In the early 1900’s Oklahoma was on the verge of becoming one of the last states - the 47th -admitted to the Union. It had previously been designated as sovereign Indian Territory and many Native American tribes from across the US had been relocated there. After the Civil War, as railroads and cattle drives began passing through, there was increasing pressure from all sides to open up this fertile farm and ranch land to white settlement. This began to happen in the 1890’s when a series of “land runs” were organized to distribute the so-called “Unassigned Lands” in the center of the state, allowing whoever got there first to drive a stake in the ground and claim the land as their own for cultivation. Eventually the Oklahoma and Indian Territories were combined to create the state of Oklahoma in 1907, bringing an end to the former Native American sovereignty.
The musical Oklahoma! is freely adapted from a play called Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs, who was born and raised in the northeastern corner of the state, in Indian Territory. His mother was 1/8 Cherokee. His play is a nearly a musical – full of folk songs (several of them sung by Curly, a singing cowboy), and is full of vivid characterizations and detail about the day-to-day lives of these recent settlers. Impressionistic and free-form, the play delves deeply into their complicated emotional lives, their resiliency, humour, and life and death struggles as they scratch out a living on the land while starting to create a structure and a community for themselves. Although the play is clearly set in Indian Territory, the main characters (including an Arab peddler), are white settlers nearly identical to those in the musical.
Even though Green Grow had been produced on Broadway in 1931, when Oklahoma! opened in 1943 it would have been considered very strange source material for a musical as audiences would have been much more likely to see the curtain going up on an energetic line of chorus girls, followed by some sketch comedy. The genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein was to recognize the possibilities in Riggs’ play to continue the development of the form by integrating music, dance, characterization, and story, focusing simply and honestly on the day-to-day struggles of regular people. During the darkest times of WWII this must have been extremely resonant as the country summoned its own resilience and determination in the face of the struggle to defeat fascism.
All of the action of Oklahoma! (aside from the last scene, which ties up all the loose ends) occurs over the course of one single day. But in that single day we see so beautifully revealed the hopes, dreams, and struggles of these iconic characters, as well as unresolved questions about what United States should be that we still see playing out today. The mix of humour, optimism, simplicity, open-heartedness, and transcendent music and dance are every bit as necessary, satisfying, and relevant today as they ever have been.