Next weekend Center Stage Theatre will present “Oklahoma!” by playwrights Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Spoiler alert! This column will reveal plot elements of both “Oklahoma!” and the play examined last week, “Green Grow the Lilacs.” This week we explore how this potential flop evolved into the play that changed the direction of musical theater in 1943.
Rodgers and Hammerstein adopted an unusual writing partnership. Rodgers and his previous partner, Lorenz Hart, had generally composed in the same room; Rodgers had to corral the alcoholic Hart to force him to work. In contrast, Hammerstein preferred to work alone. As their normal practice, Hammerstein would compose the lyrics standing at a desk in his Pennsylvania home, painstakingly spending days and weeks on a song. He would then send the lyrics to Rodgers, who would often compose a melody within an hour. Though there were months of planning, Rodgers estimated his total time for composing “Oklahoma!” to be as few as five hours.
The organization producing the play, the Theatre Guild, had trouble finding backers. The composers and cast members trouped to Manhattan penthouses to perform for potential investors, with little to show for their efforts. Lawrence Langner, co-director of the Guild, would recall the show as “… too clean … It did not have the suggestive jokes, the spicy situations, the strip-teasers and the other indecencies which too often went with a successful musical of those days.” Comments included “I don’t like plays about farm hands” and “musicals don’t have murders in the second act.” The play become known as [Guild co-director Theresa] “Helburn’s Folly.” At intermission of the first tryout in New Haven, backer Max Gordon sold $5,000 of his share outside the theatre. The clean version of a reaction at the New Haven tryout was “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” Backers would eventually earn an estimated 5,000 percent on their investment.
The list of songs used in the play slowly evolved to the familiar lineup. Late additions included “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “All er Nuthin’ ” and even the song “Oklahoma!”
Numerous candidate songs disappeared or were never fully composed. The ballad “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” at one point slated to be “the best song in the show — when it is written,” ended up in the movie “State Fair.”
Hammerstein stated that the iconic song “Oklahoma!” was “a lyric which I never intended to write.” En route to a presentation for potential backers, Helburn asked him for “a song about the earth.” Hammerstein thought it one of the “silliest and vaguest ideas I have ever heard.” Two days later he had a lyric.
The harmonies and driving choruses in the song “Oklahoma!” were not in the original arrangement. Preparing for the tryouts in Boston, Faye Elizabeth Smith, one of the best singers in the cast, suggested to Rodgers that adding harmonies would “take the roof off …” Arranger Robert Russell Bennett, whose vital contributions to the play have often been overlooked, was called from New York; he began working on the train. The cast and crew piled into the theater on Sunday, their day off, and worked out the arrangements, including adding the driving “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” ending. There were no copy machines in the 1940s, and no copyists could be hired on Sunday; the cast learned their parts on the fly. By the evening the song could be staged. Choreographer Agnes de Mille created a “flying wedge” that moved to the audience as the cast sang. The showstopper was born.
The working title of the play as it went to out of town tryouts was “Away We Go.” “Green Grow the Lilacs” had been rejected because MGM owned the movie rights. Other rejected names were “Swing Your Honey” and “Singin’ Pretty.” Betty Garde, portraying Aunt Eller, claimed that she suggested the title “Oklahoma” (no exclamation point). With no time to change the publicity materials, the new name would not be used until the New York debut. The exclamation point was added so close to opening night that staff handwrote exclamation points on 30,000 press releases.
On the evening of March 31, 1943, ticket holders tramped through snow and drizzle to the St. James Theatre in New York. They scanned their programs to see a cast with no bankable names. The play opened not to scantily clad dancing girls in a rousing ensemble piece, but to an old woman seated alone with a butter churn. The first music was sung off stage, the opening lyrics to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” The first act ended with a seven-minute ballet about an “anxiety dream.” The audience would get the expected production numbers only after intermission. Costumes based on a turn-of-the-century Montgomery Ward catalog were anything but revealing. Reviews were positive, even some raves. Word of mouth was effective. Getting tickets soon became the stuff of legend. “Oklahoma!” would smash the existing record and run for 2,212 Broadway performances; the road company would run until 1953.
Todd S. Purdum describes the impact of the play “… it is difficult to fathom how revolutionary ‘Oklahoma!’ was in its day. It was not, as is so often said, the first musical play to integrate dance into its drama … Nor was it the first to eschew typical musical comedy conventions, such as an opening chorus … Nor was it the first to deal with serous themes and personalities in its story line … But ‘Oklahoma!’ was the first to do all three at once, with the smashing success that it did.”
And if I am allowed my humble opinion, that smashing success required those magnificent, infectious, earworm-inducing songs. Yeow!!
CST will perform “Oklahoma!” at the Paramount Theatre on May 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. and May 5 at 3 p.m., featuring Leanne Bernard as Laurey and Elliott Turner as Curly. Tickets are available at the Paramount box office or online at bit.ly/cstnc19ok.