- North Carolina School of the Arts’ “OKLAHOMA!”
- Recreation of the 1943 original production of the most produced American in history proved that the UNC had the hand on presenting great theater.
- National known conductor John Mauceri served as musical director and artistic supervisor of the stage production.
Oklahoma! – Looking back…
By the early 1940s, Rodgers and Hammerstein were each well known for creating Broadway hits with other collaborators.
- Rodgers, with Lorenz Hart, had produced over two dozen musicals since the 1920s, including such popular successes as Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938) and Pal Joey (1940).
- Among other successes, Hammerstein had written the lyrics for Rose-Marie (1924), The Desert Song (1926), The New Moon (1927) and Show Boat (1927).
Though less productive in the 1930s, Hammerstein wrote musicals, songs, and films, sharing an Academy Award for his song with Jerome Kern, “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” which was included in the 1941 film Lady Be Good.
By the early 1940s, Hart had sunk into alcoholism and emotional turmoil, and he became unreliable, prompting Rodgers to approach Hammerstein to ask if he would consider working with him.
- In 1931, the Theatre Guild produced Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs, a play about settlers in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory.
- Though the play was not successful, ten years later in 1941, Theresa Helburn, one of the Guild’s producers, saw a summer-stock production supplemented with traditional folk songs and square dances and decided the play could be the basis of a musical that might revive the struggling Guild.
Helburn contacted Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose first successful collaboration, The Garrick Gaieties, had been produced by the Theatre Guild in 1925. Rodgers wanted to work on the project and obtained the rights for himself and Hart. Rodgers had asked Oscar Hammerstein II to collaborate with him and Hart.
- During the tryouts of Rodgers and Hart’s By Jupiter in 1941, Hammerstein had assured Rodgers that if Hart were ever unable to work, he would be willing to take his place.
Green Grow the Lilacs with Franchot Tone in 1931…
Coincidentally in 1942, Hammerstein had thought of musicalizing Green Grow the Lilacs, but when he had approached Jerome Kern about it, the latter declined.
- Hammerstein learned that Rodgers was seeking someone to write the book, and he eagerly took the opportunity.
- Hart lost interest in the musical; he preferred contemporary, urbane shows that would showcase his witty lyric writing, and he found the farmers and cowhands in Green Grow the Lilacs corny and uninspiring.
- Moreover, spiraling downward, consumed by his longstanding alcoholism, Hart no longer felt like writing.
- He embarked on a vacation to Mexico, advising Rodgers that Hammerstein would be a good choice of a new collaborator.
Rodgers and Hammerstein
This partnership allowed both Rodgers and Hammerstein to follow their preferred writing methods: Hammerstein preferred to write a complete lyric before it was set to music, and Rodgers preferred to set completed lyrics to music.
In Rodgers’ previous collaborations with Hart, Rodgers had always written the music first, since the unfocused Hart needed something on which to base his lyrics.
Hammerstein’s former collaborators included composers Rudolf Friml, Herbert Stothart, Vincent Youmans, and Kern, who all wrote music first, for which Hammerstein then wrote lyrics.
The role reversal in the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership permitted Hammerstein to craft the lyrics into a fundamental part of the story so that the songs could amplify and intensify the story instead of diverting it.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein began developing the new musical, they agreed that the source material would dictate their musical and dramatic choices, Green Grow the Lilacs, not by musical comedy conventions.
Musicals of that era featured big production numbers, novelty acts, and show-stopping specialty dances; the libretto typically focused on humor, with little dramatic development, punctuated with songs that effectively halted the story for their duration.
Casting and Development
Between the world wars, roles in musicals were usually filled by actors who could sing, but Rodgers and Hammerstein chose, conversely, to cast singers who could act.
- Though Theresa Helburn, co-director of the Theatre Guild, suggested Shirley Temple as Laurey and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, with director Rouben Mamoulian’s support, insisted that performers more dramatically appropriate for the roles were cast.
- As a result, there were no stars in the production, another unusual step. Agnes de Mille (Cecil B. DeMille’s sister and this was her first time choreographing a musical on Broadway) choreographed the production.
- DeMille provided one of the show’s most notable and enduring features: a 15-minute first-act ballet finale (often referred to as the dream ballet) depicting Laurey’s struggle to evaluate her suitors, Jud and Curly.
- The first title given to work was Away We Go! which opened for out-of-town-tryouts in New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on March 11, 1943.
- Expectations for the show were low; Hammerstein had written six flops in a row, and the show had no star power. Producer Mike Todd walked out after the first act during the tryout and wisecracked, “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
- But Rodgers and Hammerstein were confident.
- The New Haven and Boston audiences were enthusiastic, although the reviews were only fair.
- Of the changes made before the show went to Broadway, two would prove significant: the addition of the show-stopping musical number, Oklahoma and the decision to retitle the musical after the signature song and Away We Go! was history.
Oklahoma! is a hit!
Todd had been wrong; the show opened on Broadway to raves from the critics, sold out, and won a special Pulitzer Prize.
- Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that the show’s opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” changed the history of musical theater.
- After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.
- The New York Post was the only major paper to give Oklahoma! a mixed review. Its critic felt that while the songs were pleasant enough, they sounded much alike.
The musical creativity stimulated Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contemporaries and ushered in the “Golden Age” of musical theatre.
The iconic Oklahoma! continues to be one of the most produced musicals in American history.
North Carolina School of the Arts’ Oklahoma! Restoration – The 1943 production recreated.
- The University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ all-school production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, staged in early 2011 using the original 1943 designs, dance, and orchestrations was captured on HD tape and broadcast on PBS. Famed conductor John Mauceri was musical director and artistic supervisor of the stage production.
- One reviewer wrote regarding the above scene: “A great insightful twist in the UNC production is that Jud has a fresh haircut and has trimmed his facial hair. It makes it so clear what expectation he has. It’s also very significant that Jud can’t be perceived as sloppy or dumpy or unkempt. He’s an attractive young man with an emotional problem. It makes the whole show so much more compelling.”
- UNCSA faculty and students “extensively researched all aspects of the original production and painstakingly recreated the original costumes and stage designs.” UNCSA’s restoration included the original Agnes de Mille choreography
Act 1 and Act 2 from the recreated original Broadway production of OKLAHOMA!
Act 1 – Oklahoma!
Act 2 – Oklahoma!