When we speak of the impact composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II have had on musical theatre, it is perhaps easiest to think of it in terms of pre- and post-Oklahoma!. This is due to the fact that the show, the first collaboration between what would become the most dynamic and prolific duo on the Broadway scene, smashed all prior expectations and boundaries on what an American musical should look, feel, and sound like. Todd Purdum author of “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution,” draws a comparison between the envelope pushing modern-day American musical Hamilton to the radical reception and critical acclaim Oklahoma! received at its time. By avoiding the typical smoke and mirror antics of show business around the turn of the 20th century, Rodgers and Hammerstein introduced new elements that enriched plot and character development through song, dance and script.
Pre-Oklahoma!, American musicals relied heavily on the buzz around a single well-known name, like Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman and Sarah Bernhardt to attract crowds and provide star power. Additionally, many musicals used the “formula musical” as a mold to create palatable and simple storylines that featured predictable plots with a strong baritone lead, a dainty soprano lead and a supporting tenor and alto in the background. The musical numbers featured were often fillers within the show, rather than carrying the story forward. Most musicals were light and whimsical with little to no character development, or utilized over the top slapstick humor to prop up the show.
Rather than select two headlining stars to perform, Rodgers and Hammerstein cast relatively unknown Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts to play the leads of Curly and Laurey, both of whom were actors, in addition to being singers. This show acted as a catalyst for both actor’s careers. One of the original show’s most distinctive features was the dream ballet sequence, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, which allowed audiences to experience the subconscious fears plaguing the young and impressionable Laurey. The decision to end the first-half of the show on anything other than an upbeat, happy note was a calculated choice on the part of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wanted to leave viewers with something to think about and feel over intermission.
Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, served as the premise for the show, in which Riggs provides an inside glimpse into the unfolding of the Indian Territory of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. While both Rodgers and Hammerstein instantly saw the potential of the play taking shape in the form of a musical, there was much debate on what the show should be titled. Hammerstein originally wanted to call it “Oklahoma,” but was rejected at first because it was felt there was too strong an association with the term “Oakies” from the novel “Grapes of Wrath.” A working title of “Away We Go!,” was settled on temporarily, until the iconic song “Oklahoma!” was added to to the show. An exclamation point was added for a punch of energy and it then became the title we know and love today.
When Oklahoma! first opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theater on 44th Street, a New York review grimly dismissed the show with the quip "No Girls, No Gags, No Chance." Considering the political climate at the time, the United States was at the tail-end of the Great Depression and hurling into a war following the recent attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in musicals often avoiding themes of realism or tragedy. However, the relatable characters and challenges they faced within the show allowed audiences the opportunity to become emotionally invested, in a format never presented to them before.
Since typical financial-backers were hesitant to invest in a show featuring never before seen American folk-ballet, as well as mature themes, Rodgers and Hammerstein leaned on the friends and allies of the Theatre Guild to get the show up and running. Investors were shocked to discover that the show not only succeeded to draw in hordes of theatre-goers, but in fact would break box-office records. The show ran on Broadway for five years and nine months, a whopping total of 2,212 performances, thereby becoming the longest running and highest grossing show ever to grace The Great White Way.
Ushering in the golden age of musical theatre, Oklahoma! became a groundbreaking milestone in American musical history. It later went on to become a major motion picture in 1955. Realizing their knack for working together, Rodgers and Hammerstein continued their fruitful collaboration and would go on to write Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, to name a few. Their musical theatre writing partnership has been called the greatest of the 20th century and has influenced countless numbers of composers, writers and choreographers to date. In total, Rodgers and Hammerstein have racked up thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for the musical South Pacific.
And now, in celebrating the 75th Anniversary since first opening on Broadway, the Ogunquit Playhouse is thrilled to produce Oklahoma! for our audiences. The Ogunquit Playhouse production features the original designs from Cameron Mackintosh’s London and Broadway revival and Susan Stroman’s Choreography, restaged by her Associate Ginger Thatcher.