Oklahoma! was the first time that composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein partnered up to write a musical. The story came from a play called Green Grow the Lilacs, about settlers in the territory that would soon become the state of Oklahoma.
Rodgers was interested in turning the play into a musical, but his usual partner, Lorenz Hart, wasn’t. Hammerstein was interested too, but his partner, Jerome Kern, also declined. So, Rodgers & Hammerstein became a duo and changed the course of Broadway history.
Oklahoma! was different from previous musicals because there were no major comic gags or novelty acts, and no special dances that were unrelated to the story. Instead, it wove together character, song and dance in pursuit of dramatic and cohesive storytelling. The Rodgers & Hammerstein collaboration worked perfectly in that Hammerstein preferred to write lyrics first, which helped to create the storyline, and Rodgers preferred to write music for completed lyrics (they had always worked in the reverse with previous partners).
The famous title song – and the name of the musical – didn’t come about until previews were held in Boston. One of the producers asked for a new song “about the land” and Rodgers & Hammerstein came up with “Oklahoma!” The name took over for the previous title, Away We Go.
Oklahoma! came along at just the right time. Deep into World War II, the nation needed this moment of inspiration and a reminder of the American frontier spirit. Oklahoma! broke all box office records with 2,212 performances. The Tony Awards weren’t given out until 1947, but Rodgers & Hammerstein did win a special Pulitzer Prize, and on the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma! it was recognized with a special Tony. “People Will Say We’re in Love” was the number one song of 1943, and the first-ever album featuring the original Broadway cast of a musical sold over a million copies, bringing the songs and story of Oklahoma! into households across the country. In short, Oklahoma! was the Hamilton of its day.
Check out this great video from the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization on the 75th anniversary of Oklahoma! in 2018. A year later, the current revival of Oklahoma! on Broadway received seven Tony nominations and 11 Drama Desk nominations. In the New York Times, venerable theatre critic Ben Brantley says, “How is it that the coolest new show on Broadway in 2019 is a 1943 musical usually regarded as a very square slice of American pie? The answer arrives before the first song is over in Daniel Fish’s wide-awake, jolting and altogether wonderful production.”
Tickets for The Very Best of Rodgers & Hammerstein, featuring some of the best songs from Oklahoma!, are becoming scarce. We have limited availability on Sunday, June 9 and seats for Saturday, June 8 are going fast! Act now – visit capesymphony.org or call 508.362.1111.