For most people, there’s one show that marks the beginning of musical theater as we know it, and that show is Oklahoma! Now, as the 75th anniversary of the original Broadway production approaches, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the show, what made it so special, and why it still resonates with audiences 75 years after the first curtain rose on a cowboy singing about a “beautiful mornin’”.
The timing for the collaboration of this show couldn’t have been better. Both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were working with other partners up to the early 1940’s. Rodgers’ partner, Lorenz Hart, was unfortunately suffering the throes of alcoholism and Hammerstein’s writing partnership with Jerome Kern was fading from its productivity in the late 1920’s, which held Showboat at its zenith.
Richard Rodgers was approached to write a musical based on a play called Green Grows the Lilacs, a play about romantic rivalries set in the Oklahoma territory. With Hart ailing and Kern uninterested, Rodgers reached out to Hammerstein and began a collaboration that would define American musical theater for generations.
Oklahoma! rewrote the rules of musicals up to that point in several ways. The most important change was that the show was a fully integrated book musical. We can sometimes take it for granted now that a show has a plot that features actors singing and dancing, but this wasn’t always the case by any stretch. Oklahoma! was not the first to use songs to further the plot by revealing the actor’s motives or emotions, but it was the first to add dance to the equation. Choreographer Agnes DeMille was responsible for that integration and her dream ballet, a 15-minute dance sequence at the end of the first act, was revolutionary.
The show also pushed musical theater further from vaudeville than ever before. The producers wanted to cast big name stars such as Shirley Temple and Groucho Marx in the roles. Director Rouben Mamoulian pushed for more appropriate, if less known, actors in the roles. Furthermore, while the show features some lighthearted moments, it is not slapstick comedy by any stretch of the imagination. Focusing on literary themes and tone, Rodgers and Hammerstein created a profound, challenging work that caused one producer to quip “no legs, no jokes, no chance.”
The show, along with a lot of the most well-known and oft-produced titles of American Theatre, gets glossed over, but it’s actually a fairly serious piece of work. The story of rivals, Curly and Jud, for the attentions of Laurie, are set against the background of the Oklahoma land grab, which opened up the final westward expansion from the late 19th century into the 20th century. It also highlighted class struggles and the shifting priorities of a society from ranching or wandering, towards farming or settling down. Further punctuating the irony of this tension is the well-known and recently remembered events of the Dust Bowl that would have overtaken all of the work of the families depicted in the musical.
Beyond the broader context, the specific characters that inhabit Oklahoma! are problematic. Will and Annie, the comedic relief of the musical, are both atypically unfaithful to each other. Annie is very progressively depicted as sexually insatiable. Will is definitely cuckolded on a number of occasions as well.
Jud, the antagonist, is initially polite and friendly towards Laurie, who accepts his invitation to the social event. Laurie, the ingénue, uses Jud to make Curly jealous, egging him on to outbid Jud in an auction for the basket Laurie made, once again highlighting a class difference between Curly and Jud. This class difference is further, hauntingly emphasized in the final action of the play where, spoiler alert, Curly is quickly acquitted of Jud’s murder, which everyone saw him commit! Curly is the protagonist of this musical because we are told he is, not because he demonstrates heroism or nobility in any way. In Oklahoma! we can see Rodgers and Hammerstein beginning to twist some of the popular tropes of the genre that they would use to defy expectations in later shows such as South Pacific and Carousel.
The timelessness of Oklahoma! is due to the ambiguities and character flaws. They are almost Shakespearean in nature. If one looks, for example, at any Shakespearean Comedy, one would see similar issues: ambiguous characters acting out of less-than-pure motives in morally challenging ways. The ending of those comedies, similar to the end of Oklahoma! has audiences both cheering and simultaneously wondering why they’re cheering.
At the same time, the musical is woven into the fabric of our culture, no mean feat for any piece of art, but similar to Huckleberry Finn and Sesame Street, Oklahoma! is distinctly American. It is also the reason I’m here today because my grandfather took my grandmother to see the show in 1946 for their first date. The tickets were 5 cents each.
Stream the 1999 production of Oklahoma! starring Hugh Jackman.