Internet InfoMedia on this day in history march 31 1943 oklahoma debuts on broadway deeply felt

The great American musical “Oklahoma!” — which changed the trajectory of musical theater forever — graced the Great White Way for the first time on this day in history, March 31, 1943. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical premiered 81 years ago at the St. James Theatre in New York City. 

It ran in that theater for almost five years, setting records with its 2,212 total performances.

“The next morning, rave reviews for ‘Oklahoma!’ poured in, and the box office was frenzied with theatergoers eager to claim their ticket to see the new musical critics were calling ‘a striking piece of theatrical Americana,'” the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization wrote.

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY, MARCH 30, 1858, AMERICAN VISIONARY HYMEN LIPMAN PATENTS PENCIL WITH ERASER

The musical “Oklahoma!” is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” written in 1930 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 also collaborated on scores of other creative works, winning 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and more.

Oklahoma marquee

The marquee at Broadway’s Saint James Theatre, at 246 West 44th Street, in New York, 1943. The sign on the marquee reads, “The Theatre Guild presents ‘Oklahoma!’ Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, dances by Agnes De Mille.”  (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Originally entitled “Away We Go,” “Oklahoma!” forged a new format for musicals.

Broadway shows in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s produced by Florenz Ziegfeld were more along the lines of musical revue, with heavy song-and-dance and slapstick comedy but no real narrative. 

BROADWAY UNMASKED! 10 FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT AMERICA’S MOST FAMOUS STREET

Under Ziegfeld, the musical “Show Boat” started to integrate a deeper storyline while still retaining the song-and-dance flare that audiences favored.

“A song about the bright gold haze on an Oklahoman meadow … may strike few people in the 21st century as revolutionary, 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 out to revolutionize the American musical, they were interested in melding the elements of story, song and dance in a more integrated way,” an NPR segment noted.

“Before ‘Oklahoma!,’ most musicals had been haphazard affairs, where the songs related to the plot in only the sketchiest of ways,” the same source said.

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY, MARCH 2, 1965, ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’ DEBUTS IN AMERICAN MOVE THEATERS

Most shows at the time opened with a “bang” or a line of pretty chorus girls wowing audiences with their dance or song, yet Rodgers and Hammerstein challenged audience expectations by depicting the simple life of a rural cowboy in America. 

The show opened with the most unexpected sequence in musical history.

curly and aunt eller

Actor Alfred Drake singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” in the musical “Oklahoma!” (George Karger/Getty Images)

“A song about the bright gold haze on an Oklahoman meadow, begun offstage and continued as a serenade by a bowlegged cowboy to a mature lady working away at a butter churn on her porch, may strike few people in the 21st century as revolutionary, 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 motivated and dictated by the story itself.

“Like Michelangelo chiseling away all the superfluous marble that wasn’t essential to his statue, the creative team was boldest in paring away all the obstacles that got in the way of their story.”

FROM KATHARINE HEPBURN TO SHIRLEY TEMPLE: A LOOK BACK AT OLD HOLLYWOOD OSCARS AND LITTLE-KNOWN TRIVIA

The musical tells the story of a confident yet romantic Oklahoma cowboy, Curly McLain, and a gentle but stubborn farm girl, Laurey Williams. 

They love each other but are unable to say so — and ultimately find themselves in a love triangle with the brooding farmhand Jud Fry. 

Oklahoma original cast

The original company in the 1943 production of “Oklahoma!” From left are Lee Dixon (Will Parker), Celeste Holm, (Ado Annie), Alfred Drake, (Curly), Joan Roberts (Laurey), Joseph Buloff (Ali Hakim) and Betty Garde (Aunt Eller). “Oklahoma!” is considered the first “concept” musical in the history of American musical theater.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

In contrast, a secondary plot line showcases another love triangle between the adventurous Will Parker — a role written by Hammerstein for the show — and the flirtatious Ado Annie; their love is interrupted by Persian peddler Ali Hakim.

The show demonstrated its ability to integrate dialogue into song.

While many people today know songs such as “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” or “People Will Say We’re in Love” outside the show’s context, the songs within the musical help propel the story forward.

‘MY WORLD HAS CHANGED FOREVER’: OHIO GIRL’S BIG SUCCESS IN BIG APPLE AS A RADIO CITY ROCKETTE

“Nearly all of the songs in ‘Oklahoma!’ are interrupted by, or carried through by, sections of dialogue [which are then] woven through lyrics,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization noted.

“[Oklahoma] is a small human story, a sketch of characters and a swift-moving symbol of the spirit of the pioneer America about 1900.” — Oscar Hammerstein II

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *