On this historic day, March 31, 1943, “Oklahoma!” Makes Broadway Debut: “Deeply Felt”
The great American musical “Oklahoma!” – which forever changed the trajectory of musical theater – graced the Great White Way for the first time on this day in history, March 31, 1943.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical premiered 80 years ago at New York’s St. James Theater. It ran at this theater for almost five years, setting records with its 2,212 performances in total.
“The next morning, rave reviews for ‘Oklahoma!’ poured in, and the box office was frantic with moviegoers eager to claim their ticket to see new music critics call it ‘a striking piece of theatrical Americana,'” the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization wrote.
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The musical “Oklahoma!” is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” written in 1930 by Lynn Riggs.
The show marked the first collaboration between Broadway musical legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II – the dynamic duo who went on to write 11 musicals for the stage. They have also collaborated on many other creative works, winning 34 Tony Awards, 15 Oscars, two Pulitzer Prizes and more.
Originally titled “Away We Go”, “Oklahoma!” forged a new format for musicals.
Broadway shows in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s produced by Florenz Ziegfeld were more akin to a musical revue, with heavy song and dance and slapstick comedy, but no real narrative.
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Under Ziegfeld, the musical “Show Boat” began to incorporate a deeper storyline while retaining the sheen of song and dance that audiences preferred.
“A song about the shining golden mist on an Oklahoman prairie…may sound revolutionary to few in the 21st century, but compared to what else was playing at the time, it was.” — The Rodgers & Hammerstein organization
“While [Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein] weren’t necessarily there to revolutionize American musical comedy, they were interested in merging the elements of story, song and dance in a more integrated way,” an NPR segment noted.
“Before” Oklahoma! “most musicals were hit-or-miss affairs, where the songs only concerned the plot in a very sketchy way,” the same source said.
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Most shows of the time opened with a “bang” or a line of pretty choir girls wowing the audience with their dance or song, but Rodgers and Hammerstein defied audience expectations by depicting the simple life of a rural cowboy in America.
The show opened with the most unexpected sequence in music history.
“A song about the gleaming golden mist on an Oklahoman prairie, begun backstage and continued like a serenade by a bow-legged cowboy to a mature woman working a butter churn on her porch, may sound revolutionary to the 21st century, but compared to what else was playing at the time, it was,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization shared.
The show’s song and dance sequences were driven and dictated by the story itself.
“Like Michelangelo chiseling away all the superfluous marble that was not essential to his statue, the creative team was boldest in removing all the obstacles that got in the way of their story.”
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The musical tells the story of a confident but romantic Oklahoma cowboy, Curly McLain, and a sweet but stubborn farmer, Laurey Williams.
They love each other but are unable to tell – and eventually end up in a love triangle with brooding farmhand Jud Fry.
In contrast, a subplot features another love triangle between adventurer Will Parker – a role Hammerstein wrote for the series – and flirtatious teen Annie; their love is interrupted by the Persian peddler Ali Hakim.
The show demonstrated his ability to incorporate dialogue into song.
While many people today know songs like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” or “People Will Say We’re in Love” outside of the context of the show, the songs from the musical help make advance the story.
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“Almost every song on ‘Oklahoma!’ are interrupted or continued by sections of dialogue [which are then] woven through the lyrics,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization noted.
“[Oklahoma] is a short human story, a sketch of characters, and a swift symbol of the spirit of pioneering America circa 1900.” – Oscar Hammerstein II
Hammerstein was a book author and lyricist and “knew better than anyone in the business how to move from dialogue to the emotional expression of song and – most importantly – how to back out,” Laurence Malson wrote for the Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Choreographer Agnès de Mille also created a dreamy ballet sequence that showcased the deepest emotions of the main characters.
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For 18 minutes, audiences were immersed in the psyche of the story’s ingenue, Laurey, her inner conflict presented through dance.
This psychological moment in history became a centerpiece of the show.
In his heart, “Oklahoma!” is an American folk story about the simple qualities of life.
“It’s a little human story, a character sketch, and a quick symbol of the spirit of pioneering America around 1900,” Hammerstein wrote in 1948.
Her favorite song on the show, “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” describes that aspect of finding great joy in even small things.
“I don’t cry over sadness in the theater. I cry over naive happiness,” Hammerstein said in a vintage recording.
“The fact that two people are looking forward to a ride in a surrey for a dance brings me to tears.”
It was this quality of simplicity that amazed the public on the evening of March 31, 1943.
“‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ produced a whole house sigh that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in a theater. It was just ‘Ahh.’ It was perfectly beautiful and deeply felt,” said Agnès de Mille after the show opened.
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Before the show officially made its way to New York, critics were expecting a musical “flop.”
During the show’s out-of-town tryout in New Haven, Connecticut, columnist’s assistant Walter Winchell wrote to him, saying, “No girls! No legs! No chance!”
“That would turn out to be one of the most mistaken predictions in theater history,” History.com noted.
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“Oklahoma!” also created the first-ever “original cast recording” after bringing the directors, ensemble and orchestra together in a recording studio to sing the show, according to the Library of Congress.
Broadway had created a show that brought people “home”.
“The show’s sunny optimism and artisanal Americana were a perfect tonic for the jittery uncertainty of World War II,” NPR noted.
Ever since, audiences have been fascinated by the simple folk tale that was created 80 years ago.
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The Rodgers & Hammerstein organization noted, “’Oklahoma!‘ took his audience on a longer, more compelling journey – he asked his audience to jump inside a shiny little surrey with the fringe on top and go with him.