One of the hottest tickets selling on Broadway this season is for the new London revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! which opened last month in New York. The original Oklahoma! marked the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein, the beginning of an extraordinary partnership that created such musical classics as South Pacific, Carousel, and The Sound of Music.
On March 31, 1943, a war-weary audience took refuge at the St. James Theater in New York City where they escaped to the sun-lit plains of the southwest.
"If you look at the line-up of Oklahoma!, there wasn't anything very inviting about it," says composer Richard Rodgers. "Everybody connected to the show had had ten horrible years. We had no stars. And so, your man with the money said 'these people have got to fail.' "
Mr. Rodgers described his anticipated failure in a 1957 interview. Oklahoma! was different from anything anyone had ever seen. Based on the 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs, there was no chorus line of leggy girls, comedians or star performers - but a simple story of a farm girl and a cowboy living in a territory destined to become a state. But more than that, what Oklahoma! had that no other musical had preceding it - was the perfect combination of music, lyrics, narrative and even dance to tell a story.
"Hammerstein, all through his career, had been making the musical logical. When he arrived, the musical was basically vaudeville anything that entertained was what was good for the show," explains theater historian Ethan Mordden, author of several books on the theater, including a study of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals. He says before Oklahoma!, no one expected a musical to make any sense.
"Hammerstein said, 'No, it should be better than that. If I tell a sensible story in a sensible way, you're going to get a lot more out of it,'" Mr. Mordden said.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's heartrending story of American pioneers, combined with a brilliant score, made Oklahoma! an unprecedented hit. Joan Roberts, who played the original lead role of Laurie, remembers the audience on opening night.
"The opening night in New York was the most thrilling thing I ever experienced. I don't think the people wanted to leave'" she said. "They said there were empty seats there were no empty seats, the theater was filled! And I'm sure that half of them were my relatives! I always brought my own audience, it was safer that way."
"When the show opened, Mayor La Guardia was mayor. He was there pretty much every night," she continued. "He acted like he had personally produced it, it was his play. And then the governor of Oklahoma! was always there. There was always somebody up there on the stage after every performance, of some importance. And then, from then on, everything was patented after it, and they proved that you could do a serious play with music."
The phenomenal success of Oklahoma! made stars of its players and millionaires of its creators. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who hadn't had a hit in 10 years, talked about his newfound success in a 1957 interview.
"The answer to Oklahoma! is, in part, that in spite of all those technical revolutions, which might have been called mistakes if they were failures, there was a spirit in Oklahoma!, there was a spirit in Green Grow the Lilacs that's the intangibility. And that's why because of the presence of intangibility in success and failure, do not rely too much on the tangibles," he said.
Oklahoma! ran five years on Broadway, toured for 51 weeks, while a national company traveled for 10 years, appearing in 250 cities. It was the first musical to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The once wary financial backers increased their investments by 2500%. Oklahoma! would prove to be the dawn of the golden age of the Broadway musical.