The 60 year old Arena Stage and its Artistic Director Molly Smith have recently opened the doors to its architecturally majestic new Mead Center for American Theater to rave reviews with a revival of the great American classic, Rodger‘s and Hammersteins‘s “Oklahoma!” This has prompted my look back to the inception of an important milestone in the history and development of the American theater.
Opening night was March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theater on 44th St. It had been only 16 months since the attack on Pearl Harbor. The curtain opened to a simple scene of the American western frontier. The theater was not sold out. Success was not assured.
“Oklahoma!” was Richard Rodgers’ first collaboration without his long time partner, lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart. The prolific team of Rodgers and Hart had lasted a quarter of a century, giving birth to some of America’s greatest songs. But Hart was a chronic alcoholic and lately had become more difficult to work with. He would mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hart’s lyrics for their last collaboration, “By Jupiter,” were written while he was drying out in a hospital room. His health was deteriorating. In less than a year, Larry Hart would be dead from pneumonia at the age of 48.
The initial concept for the show “Oklahoma!” came from Theresa Helburn, a co-director and founder of the Theater Guild, which was suffering financially at the time. She had known and admired Richard Rodgers since 1925, when the Guild produced the first Rodgers and Hart hit show, “The Garrick Gaieties.” The premise for “Oklahoma!” spawned from a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which had not done very well, running only 62 performances.
The play was set in the area where Riggs was born and raised, the Indian Territory of Oklahoma at the turn of the century. In July of 1940, there was a revival of the play at Westport, Connecticut. After that revival, Helburn began to promote the idea of the play as a musical. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein became interested in the idea separately.
During tryouts, there had been an air of pessimism surrounding the show. Oscar Hammerstein II at the time was at a low point in his career. He had not scored a hit in years. The new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein as a pair was untested and had trouble raising funds to get the production to Broadway. Money was scarce during the war, and few had faith in a musical based on “cowboys and farmhands.” Conventional wisdom held that a show could not be a hit if it had a murder in it. The new team had to economize, and the young cast, though talented, was made up of then relative unknowns that included Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm. Prior to that time, roles in musicals were filled with actors who could sing. Rodgers and Hammerstein operated in reverse, choosing to cast the show with singers who could act. Helburn wanted Groucho Marx for the peddler and Shirley Temple for Laurey, but RH insisted on legitimate Broadway performers.
Agnes De Mille’s choreography was one of the show’s major innovations. But she had a quarrelsome temperament and insisted on hiring dancers for their abilities, not their looks. Powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell had written that noted producer Michael Todd was overheard in the lobby during the New Haven tryout saying, “No legs. No jokes. No Chance.” (What Todd actually said used a different word for “legs” but both Winchell and I have cleaned it up for print.)
When the show was trying out in New Haven it was titled “Away We Go.” Hammerstein had originally wanted to call it “Oklahoma,” but the name was rejected because it was felt that the audience might confuse it with “Oakies” in the Grapes of Wrath. When the show arrived on Broadway, the title was changed back to “Oklahoma!” this time with an exclamation point for emphasis.
Oklahoma’s record run of five years and nine months on Broadway was unbroken until My Fair Lady, opening in 1956, finally broke it in 1961. The original production of Oklahoma ran 2,248 performances, including over 40 special matinees for people in the armed forces. It played to nearly 5 million people during the original run, and to over 10 million in its first national road tour, which lasted from 1943 to 1954. The London show set another record. ‘Oklahoma!’ brought great financial reward and fame to the new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. In its first 10 years, it made a profit of $5 million on an initial investment of $83,000. A special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the new team in 1944. The new partnership would last until Hammerstein’s death in 1960.
What made “Oklahoma!” a success?
The “Broadway musical” was the first major theatrical form developed in the US, but in 1943 it was caught in a stylistic rut. Prior to Oklahoma, most hit shows were essentially vehicles to showcase the talents of its stars. They had little serious to say and there was no need to integrate the songs, dances, comedy routines and the spectacular chorus girl numbers.
Shows were expensive to mount and money was scarce during the Depression, so producers became increasingly conservative and stuck largely to formulas that had driven past successes.
In “Oklahoma!” the musical found a new form. This “integrated musical” marked a revolution in American theater. “Oklahoma!” was the complete synthesis of music, libretto, lyrics, dancing and staging. The show had structure and a sense of dramatic build that until then had been present only in a straight non-musical play. Even the dance numbers became integral to moving the story and developing the characters. Certainly the great words and music had a lot to do with the success. The score was so popular that it became the first musical to have a complete original cast album by a major label, beginning the trend of recording original cast albums. Decca’s heavy 6 record set sold over 1 million copies in its first year. Later it was one of the first recordings of a musical to be released on CD.
Oscar Hammerstein II has been called the premier poet of the American musical theater. From the beginning, Hammerstein proposed writing the lyrics before the music, allowing him to shape the overall concept of the musical. For Rodgers, this was in the reverse order from the way he had worked with Larry Hart. But Rodgers’ mastery of the genre is illustrated by this short anecdote: It had taken Oscar Hammerstein three weeks to write the lyric to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” As the story goes, he took it to Rodgers, who was then at his home in Connecticut. To his amazement, it took Rodgers only ten minutes to write the music. Rodgers said it was almost a reflex. His musical thoughts were so conditioned by the words that it took about “as long to compose it as to play it.” It became one of the most famous of Rodgers’ songs. Julie Styne, one of the great American Songwriters, wrote, “No one ever wrote a piece of music to already written words better than Rodgers. He always made it sound as though the music was composed first.”
The time and the mood of the country were also contributing factors to the success of “Oklahoma!” The show hit a nostalgic chord with audiences just out of the Depression and into World War II. The show was a favorite date for servicemen on leave. In 1943, when the show opened, Oklahoma the state was only 36 years old. It reminded many of their pioneer past, of immigrants struggling to put down roots in a new world. America suddenly found itself at war with three fascist powers and its people longed to believe in a brighter future. “Oklahoma!” was about home, family, love, and the triumph of good over evil—precisely what Americans were fighting for.
You can enjoy “Oklahoma!” directed by Molly Smith, now thru December 26, 2010 at the Arena Stage www.arenastage.com
[This article was originally published on November 10, 2010, for The Georgetowner.]