On May 3-5, Center Stage Theatre and the Paramount Theatre will present the Broadway musical adaptation of the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by cowboy turned playwright Lynn Riggs. This play is better known by the name “Oklahoma!”
Yes, that “Oklahoma!,” the first venture by the partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the play that changed the direction of musical theater in 1943 and ran for a record number of performances on Broadway. Spoiler alert! This column will reveal plot elements of both “Oklahoma!” and “Green Grow the Lilacs” as it examines the origins of “Oklahoma!” Next week’s column looks at how this potential disaster became one of the greatest Broadway musicals.
“Oklahoma!” traced a convoluted path to Broadway. “Green Grow the Lilacs” was a “warts and all” portrayal of the Oklahoma Territory of Riggs’ youth at the turn of the 20th century. The Theater Guild, a production company acclaimed for “literacy, talent and intellect,” not musicals, first produced “Green Grow the Lilacs” in 1931. By 1942, a run of flops had placed the Guild in financial difficulties. Theresa Helburn, the Guild’s co-director, sought to turn things around with “a totally new kind of play with music, not a musical comedy in the familiar sense, but a play in which the music and dancing would be aids to and adjuncts of the plot itself in telling the story.”
Helburn believed “Green Grow the Lilacs” could be her vehicle, despite its previous lackluster reception and its rural setting so unlike the fare demanded by urbane Broadway audiences. Though others, including Kurt Weill, were approached, Rodgers and Hammerstein eventually agreed to take on the project. Each had independently expressed interest in Riggs’ play; they met informally over lunch and cemented their historic Broadway partnership on a handshake.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were long established as a composer and a lyricist respectively, but by 1942 both were at crisis points in their separate careers. Rodgers had created witty and sophisticated musicals with lyricist Lorenz Hart, but Hart’s alcoholism and carousing had made him impossible to work with. Rodgers and Hart would collaborate one final time on the revival of their play “A Connecticut Yankee.” Hart would die later in the year “Oklahoma!” opened.
Hammerstein had successfully teamed with several composers, notably Jerome Kern in the groundbreaking musical “Show Boat,” but he also was on a run of flops; after “Oklahoma!’s” success, he took out a self-mocking newspaper ad trumpeting his previous failures.
Unlike previous plays I have examined for this column, “Oklahoma!” adheres to the plot of “Green Grow the Lilacs” quite closely. Two major changes bring the play more in line with the expectations for a 1940s Broadway musical. One is the expansion of the plot line involving Ado Annie and the Peddler (who gets the name Ali Hakim) into a comic threesome by adding Will Parker, a name briefly mentioned as a rodeo cowboy in “Green Grow the Lilacs.” This love triangle is the source of most of the suggestive humor in “Oklahoma!”; it parallels the more serious love story of Laurey, Curly and Jud (renamed from Jeeter in “Green Grow the Lilacs”).
The second change is the handling of the climactic scenes in which Jud/Jeeter attacks the newlyweds Laurey and Curly. Jud falls on his own knife in a fight with Curly, who is then charged with murder. In “Green Grow the Lilacs,” during a prolonged and violent shivoree (a ritual hazing for newlyweds), Jeeter tries to burn down the haystack where the mob has carried Laurey and Curly. After Jeeter’s death, Curly is taken to jail. In the final scene, Curly escapes before his trial and returns to see Laurey at her farm. Though a posse of deputies finds him, they allow Curly to spend a “wedding night” before his return to jail the next morning. The play ends with Curly singing to Laurey as they begin their delayed honeymoon, his fate in the trial undecided.
In “Oklahoma!,” the shivoree is much less threatening (though the haystack fire would be reused in the 1955 movie). A happy ending is contrived by holding an on-the-spot trial of questionable legality. Curly is declared innocent, allowing the newlyweds to depart on their honeymoon. “Oklahoma!” historian Tim Carter states, “a rather grim text [turns] into something much more cozy.” Aunt Eller provides the persuasive moral compass in both plays. She convinces the posse in “Green Grow the Lilacs” to allow Curly his “wedding night” and pressures for the impromptu trial in “Oklahoma!” that frees Curly.
Though Riggs’ play was not considered a musical, it was a play with music. Riggs built his play around traditional Western songs from his youth. The characters sang these songs as an integral and natural part of the plot, unlike the “stop and burst into song” fashion of Broadway.
While he did not use Riggs’ songs directly, Hammerstein did incorporate elements of “Green Grow the Lilacs” into many of the songs in “Oklahoma!” For example, in “Green Grow the Lilacs,” Curly describes the surrey he has hired for Laurey in prose; Hammerstein copies some of these descriptions into “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” The first lyrics that Hammerstein wrote for the play, for the show opening “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” are inspired by Riggs’ stage directions for the setting of the first scene.
Though the actors in CST’s production are using Western accents, Riggs made a thorough use of dialect in his play. Hammerstein copied and mimicked Riggs’ vernacular in the book and lyrics of “Oklahoma!” When Laurey says in “Oklahoma!” “He’d do sumpin’ turrible …” she is speaking the same words Riggs wrote. Our CST actors often struggle to avoid unintentionally correcting the grammar and pronunciation of the script.
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.