March 31, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Tonight, marks the 80th anniversary of the opening night at the St. James Theatre of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein's Oklahoma! A musical classic of the first order, it’s hard today to measure the impact it had on audiences back in 1943 — what with America deeply immersed in World War II. It’s honest depiction of a simpler time, and its characters’ deep-seated love of home and hearth, were exactly what was needed while people were dealing with the heartbreak of loved ones dying halfway around the world, seemingly on a daily basis.
In 1931, Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs opened under the auspices of the Theatre Guild at its Guild Theatre (now the August Wilson). The play ran briefly and concerned itself with settlers in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. The Guild, a powerhouse producing organization since its inception in 1919, would eventually mount 228 shows over the course of its half-century legacy. The world premieres of Shaw’s Heartbreak House and Saint Joan; O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra and Ah, Wilderness!, and the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess were a few of their prestige productions. But by 1943, the year Oklahoma! opened, a number of financial failures (Porgy and Bess among them) had made a sizable dent in the Guild’s coffers, as prestige often does not equal box office.
Call it fate, but two years prior, Teresa Helburn, one of the Guild’s lead producers, attended a summer-stock production of Green Grow the Lilacs that intrigued her. It added folk songs and dances (choreography by none other than Gene Kelly), and it gave her the idea that it might be just the thing to transform the failed play into a successful musical. She presented the idea to Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, as they wrote one of the Guild’s first produced musicals in 1925, The Garrick Gaieties (also the very first one written by the newly minted team). Rodgers took to the idea of musicalizing Lilacs immediately, but his partner did not. At the time, Rodgers and Hart still had a committed working relationship, but Hart’s drinking had been slowly killing it for years. Begging off the new show, Hart gave his blessing for Rodgers to collaborate with Oscar Hammerstein II, who himself was in need of redemption. A true pioneer of the American musical, Hammerstein had written every style of show during the preceding two decades, with such composers as Otto Harbach, Vincent Youmans, Rudolph Friml, Sigmund Romberg and most significantly with Jerome Kern on the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). When the offer came to work with Rodgers, Hammerstein had been coming up short on hits for ten years, all the while hoping one would come close to matching his work on Show Boat. Little did the two men know just how important this initial collaboration would become in furthering their artistic goals and reputations.
Teresa Helburn’s other great contribution as producer was her idea to engage Agnes de Mille to create the dances for Away We Go (as Oklahoma! was then originally titled). Having caused a stir with her Western-themed work on the Aaron Copland dance music for Rodeo, de Mille proved to be the perfect choice, not only for her artistry, but for her ability to work outside the lines of traditional theatre dance.
The director hired was Rouben Mamoulian, who had left Broadway for Hollywood some six years earlier, amassing to his credit during that time such hit films as Golden Boy, The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand. No shrinking violet, this tough and strong-willed Armenian immigrant, was also a respected theatre veteran, who had not only staged the Guild’s Porgy and Bess, but also its original incarnation, DuBose Heyward’s Porgy, upon whose play the musical was based.
The cast brought together for Oklahoma! were mostly a collection of mostly lesser known actors. Alfred Drake was Curly, and though played a large role in Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms in 1937, had not yet starred in a musical. Joan Roberts as Laurey, was a twenty-five-year-old ingenue who had a minor role in an unsuccessful Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein musical Sunny River, that had run for a month in 1941. Celeste Holm, cast as Ado Annie, had been making a name for herself since her Broadway debut in 1938, but had never done a musical. And though Lee Dixon (Will Parker), Betty Garde (Aunt Eller), Joseph Buloff (Ali Hakim) and Howard Da Silva (Jud Fry), were all well-experienced, none had any box office clout and, in the case of Dixon being given one last chance, as his penchant for alcohol had by then taken its toll on his work and reputation.
Somehow, the alchemy of these elements came together seamlessly. During the show’s out of town tryout cities of New Haven and Boston there were the usual difficulties, but none that indicated anyone was on two left feet. There was work to be done — and the Guild was going for broke (literally) with a budget that would land them in the poorhouse if the musical failed. Of the many under-the-gun decisions that had to be made, wisdom and showmanship prevailed. Perhaps the most famous “fix,” was when the song “Oklahoma” (then without its exclamation point) wasn’t working in the spot for which it had been written. Originally intended as a solo for Curly to sing to Laurey, it was deemed a better use for the tune to turn it over to the chorus near the end of the show. Choreographer de Mille devised a tap solo for the chorus member who portrayed the “Dream Curly” in the show’s end of Act One ballet, but that didn’t quite do the trick either. It was Mamoulian who set the staging in its purest form, with the cast as close to the footlights as possible, all spread across in a line. Building the song to an emotional climax and adding the rousing “Yeow!” gave the evening a burst of energy that lifted the audiences out of their seats (in those days a far less common occurrence than today). The change of title from Away We Go to Oklahoma! (with an exclamation point!) was decided upon in New Haven, though there wasn't the time to get it on posters and billboards in Boston until the third week of its engagement there. By the time it reached New York, word had travelled that a big hit was coming to town.
There is so much more to write about Oklahoma!, but with limited space, perhaps this is as good a spot as any to employ the clichéd phrase “and the rest is history.” It was the biggest musical hit of the first half of the 20th century, running five and a half years, a record that wasn’t broken until almost twenty-five years later by My Fair Lady. It is not hyperbole to state that the score to Oklahoma! is perfection, and paved the way for all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to come, which included Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music (and their scores for the film State Fair and television's Cinderella, weren't too shabby either). Even the team's less critically successful stage musicals, Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream and Flower Drum Song, all have elements in their scores way above average in their days or ours.
It's also important to note another of Oklahoma!'s important contributions to the musical as we know it today. Stephen Sondheim, writing in his book Finishing the Hat, reminds us that "Once Oklahoma! had made character and story, rather than personality and diversion, the major concern of musicals, characters, especially the central ones, suddenly were required to express their needs and wishes early on in the evening in order to establish themselves. Thus was born the "I am" or "I want" song."
And for a bit of a full circle salute, check out this clip from five years ago on the stage of the St. James Theatre, where the cast of that theatre’s then-current tenant Frozen saluted the historic night of March 31st, 1943.
Let's hope tonight the cast of New York, New York, the current St. James tenant, performs a similar tribute. Hell, all of Broadway should!
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.