Opens on Broadway

Oklahoma!, the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was also the first musical drama to feature an innovative and strongly unified score and a production that integrated music and dance into the story, setting new standards for the twentieth century musical.

Summary of Event

From the night it opened on March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, Oklahoma! was an immediate and smashing success. It ran for five years and a then-record 2,212 performances, greatly advancing the careers of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The show was one of the first strongly integrated “book” musicals, that is, musicals with coherent plots and dramatically motivated characters, as opposed to “revues,” which were simply collections of songs and sketches. The brilliant production, directed by Rouben Mamoulian Mamoulian, Rouben and presented by the prestigious Theatre Guild under its experienced producers Theresa Helburn Helburn, Theresa and Lawrence Langner Langner, Lawrence , set a standard in the American musical theater that stimulated a new seriousness and consciousness of musical theater as an art form. [kw]Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway (Mar. 31, 1943)
[kw]Broadway, Oklahoma! Opens on (Mar. 31, 1943)
Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein)[Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein)]
Musical theater
Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein)[Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein)]
Musical theater
[g]North America;Mar. 31, 1943: Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway[00770]
[g]United States;Mar. 31, 1943: Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway[00770]
[c]Theater;Mar. 31, 1943: Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway[00770]
[c]Music;Mar. 31, 1943: Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway[00770]
[c]Dance;Mar. 31, 1943: Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway[00770]
Rodgers, Richard
Hammerstein, Oscar, II
De Mille, Agnes

The show’s tryouts in New Haven, Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts, earlier in March, 1943, had met with general acclaim, but its development up to those tryouts had been difficult. The Theatre Guild Theatre Guild , organized in 1919, had been famous on Broadway as a producing organization in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The guild had brought distinguished European plays and new American works to the main stages of New York City. Among other playwrights it sponsored, Eugene O’Neill had benefited greatly from the guild’s support. The guild had played a role in a milestone in the history of the American musical theater through its production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, in 1935.

By the early 1940’s, the guild had fallen on hard times. Its directors, however, had an idea. Having had some success with an innovative “folk” play, Green Grow the Lilacs
Green Grow the Lilacs (Riggs) (1931) by Oklahoman Lynn Riggs Riggs, Lynn , Helburn and Langner tried to sell the idea of converting it into a musical celebrating early twentieth century frontier life. Takers were hard to find. Jerome Kern, composer of an earlier integrated book musical, Show Boat (1927, with libretto and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II), was not interested. Composer Richard Rodgers was. Unfortunately, Rodgers’s longtime collaborator, Lorenz Hart, was seriously ill (he would die in 1943) and in any case skeptical about the suitability of Green Grow the Lilacs as material for a musical. Rodgers immediately turned to veteran lyricist Hammerstein, who saw merit in the idea.

The original play was a simple, loosely constructed story about cowboys and farmers living in the Oklahoma Territory at the time of statehood in 1907. The minimal story, ornamented with the singing of genuine folk songs, revolved around the rivalry for the hand of local beauty Laurey between a handsome and good-natured cowboy, Curly, and a surly hired man, Jud. In a casual manner, author Riggs brought about the marriage of Curly and Laurey while staging a dance party. When Jud tried to set fire to a haystack on which the newlyweds were standing in order to escape the wedding-night taunts of their friends, Curly leapt down to stop him. Jud drew a knife, and in the ensuing struggle he was accidentally stabbed to death himself. As the play ended, Curly was sure of an exoneration and could expect a happy life with Laurey.

Rodgers and Hammerstein took this play and redesigned it, while keeping its frontier feel and folk atmosphere. Rodgers did not imitate folk songs, however. His own gift for flowing, melodious music suited the nostalgic view of America’s simpler past the duo sought to convey. His rich harmonies and soaring lines, moreover, fitted well with a wartime audience needing a reaffirmation of American frontier and heartland values. Rodgers and Hammerstein tightened Riggs’s structure by dividing the action into the common two-act format for musicals, by developing a minor, comedic love subplot, by focusing the courtship and rivalry over Laurey at an elaborate box social, and by using dance and dance drama to highlight and advance motivation and story.

The show’s underlying theme was the passing of the rough frontier and the coming of the more stable settlers or farmers, who represented a prelude to statehood and civilization. This theme was present in the play as well, but Rodgers and Hammerstein extended and reinforced it at every point. In doing so, they created a new sort of musical. All the songs were sung in character, tied to the plot or situation, and either significantly added to understanding of the theme or advanced the plot conflict. Curly’s gentle introduction with the song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” (Rodgers and Hammerstein)[Oh What a Beautiful Mornin] was an innovation in curtain-raising technique. There were no dancing girls or rousing chorus, just a man sauntering through the corn evoking the landscape, a pastoral vision in song based on Riggs’s own prose introduction to the original play.

Rodgers and Hammerstein made perhaps their most brilliant move in deciding to feature dance as a major component of the show. Wanting to keep the folk character of the play but wishing as well not to be too folksy or quaint, they needed to find someone who could combine energetic modern dance techniques with elements of traditional folk dance. They found Agnes de Mille, who then was commanding attention with her choreography Choreography;musical theater for the ballet Rodeo (1942) by Aaron Copland. She had researched folk dances for that show, which Rodgers and Hammerstein went to see. De Mille’s choreography featured the kind of combination of folk, modern, and ballet styles they were looking for. De Mille created several strikingly original dance sequences for Oklahoma!, none more influential than the extraordinary dream ballet Ballet
Choreography;ballet that concludes act 1.

The dream ballet, almost a miniature dance drama, combined a medley of tunes previously heard with a pantomime of Laurey’s troubled dream about the rivalry of Curly and Jud for her hand. In the dream, Curly is killed by Jud, and Laurey is won by the animal-like hired man. De Mille used stylized forms of popular and folk dances in combination with the traditions of ballet, altered to fit the expressive freedom and new movements of modern dance. She created a startling musical, dramatic, and dance episode to end the first act.

Hammerstein had originally wanted a high-energy circus ballet to end the act. De Mille, however, called to his attention that a young girl who was afraid her undesirable suitor might kill the man she loved would more likely have a nightmare. Hammerstein capitulated, and de Mille created a dance in which, by exposing the frightening aspects of the heroine’s position, she increased the tension and moved the plot forward. She also took a risk by emphasizing a dark element in the story—not the accepted path for a theater genre meant primarily to entertain—but it was a risk that paid off tremendously.

The second major collaboration of de Mille and the writers was the “The Farmer and the Cowman” “Farmer and the Cowman, The” (Rodgers and Hammerstein)[Farmer and the Cowman] song-and-dance sequence, which opened act 2. Again a sort of dance drama, this episode represented an actual square dance at the site of the box social. It was also thematic of the passing of the frontier culture (the cowman) and the rise of the settlers (the farmer). This sequence was more upbeat, crowded, and conventional than was the opening of the first act, but it also segued perfectly from the end of the previous act. The farmers and the cowmen reconcile, after a brief fight. The dance drama functions as a mediation of values and foreshadows the end of the play, in which cowman Curly and farmer Laurey marry and Jud—who represents the unruly and uncivilized prestatehood frontier—is killed.

Much of De Mille’s choreography is playful. She also, however, increased the seriousness of the dance in Oklahoma!. She did not cast chorines, who were usually selected more for face and figure than for dancing ability. She chose instead dancers who had been trained in ballet or modern disciplines, immediately elevating the quality of dancing and setting the standard for Broadway dance in the future. Three of her leading dancers in Oklahoma! went on to prominent careers either on Broadway (Bambi Linn and Joan McCracken) or in ballet (Diana Adams).

The box social in the musical was built upon playwright Riggs’s more casual dance episode, but it was designed to increase both the realistic drama and the symbolic import of the event. At the box social, local girls put up their food hampers for auction to the highest bidder, planning to picnic with the young men, flirt, and find beaus. Amid it all, Curly and Jud bid on Laurey’s hamper. In a tense exchange of bidding, Curly wins only by selling off his saddle, his horse, and finally his pistol. Jud, the savage figure, loses; Curly sheds his cowboy lifestyle and agrees to farm, thereby winning Laurey’s hand. The musical then proceeds to its conclusion generally along the lines of the original play.

Rodgers and Hammerstein tightened the play, gave it a sharp thematic focus, softened Curly and Jud, sensed the value of dance for propelling the show along, and crafted songs that have lasted. Lighter numbers such as “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No,” and “Pore Jud Is Daid” alternate with rich love songs such as “People Will Say We’re in Love.” The romantic quality of Curly and Laurey’s relationship is heightened by contrast to the shenanigans of the comic lovers, Ado Annie and Will Parker. Innovative and indeed startling for its time, Oklahoma! was melodious and sweeping, and its focus on a version of American frontier life helped make it a piece of Americana in its own right.


Oklahoma! had an immediate impact. An original cast album was recorded soon after the opening. A first for musicals, this method of popularizing a show soon became the norm. All later original cast albums from Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had enormous sales and remained vital and entertaining documents decades after their respective shows opened.

Even before the show’s five-year run on Broadway was concluded, a national touring show was produced. From 1944 through 1954, the national company performed Oklahoma! all over America. In 1945, an overseas company performed for soldiers still stationed in the Pacific war zone. Foreign companies had great success as early as the late 1940’s. Revivals continued to be frequent in later decades, and the show became a staple of both indoor summer theaters and the vast outdoor stages that dotted The United States in the South, Midwest, and Southwest. In that sense, Oklahoma! returned to its status as a kind of folk play with music.

A 1955 film adaptation Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Oklahoma! of the musical opened up the necessarily restricted staging of the play, creating a more realistic and expansive portrayal. The very successful film, which launched the film career of actor Shirley Jones, helped cement a new collaboration between Broadway musicals and Hollywood. In particular, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that followed Oklahoma! benefited from this collaboration. Rodgers and Hammerstein were astute businessmen and were fully aware of the changes in media and technology that, after the war, allowed saturation marketing and national exposure for the products of Broadway. Their later shows were just as fully thought out and integrated, using successful plays or novels as a base, and were enormously successful on stage and screen. These included Carousel (stage 1945, film 1956), South Pacific (stage 1949, film 1958), The King and I (stage 1951, film 1956), Flower Drum Song (stage 1958, film 1961), and The Sound of Music (stage 1959, film 1965).

Other writers emulated Rodgers and Hammerstein’s methods, and the era witnessed a great flowering of musicals, among them Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950) and The Most Happy Fella (1956), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956), and Camelot (1960), and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957).

Oklahoma! greatly expanded on the idea of an integrated book musical established by Show Boat, more fully developing the link between the songs and the plot, as well as attaining a higher level of realism in the story line. With these changes to the form of musical theater, the show set new standards for productions that followed, entering theater history as a milestone in American popular culture. Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein)[Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein)]
Musical theater

Further Reading

  • Carter, Tim. “In the Workshop of Rodgers and Hammerstein: New Light on Oklahoma!” In Music Observed: Studies in Memory of William C. Holmes, edited by Colleen Reardon and Susan Parisi. Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press, 2004. Study of the development of the original production highlighting insights into the final version of the musical made available by examining Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creative process.
  • Ewen, David. New Complete Book of the American Musical Theater. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. A massive survey with thorough descriptions and discussions of key musicals. Very good on Oklahoma! Indexed.
  • _______. Richard Rodgers. New York: Henry Holt, 1957. Although this is an early study, Ewen’s thorough knowledge of the theater serves the book and reader well. Appendixes of show data and other compositions; indexed.
  • Laufe, Abe. Broadway’s Greatest Musicals. Rev. ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1977. A focused study of the best musicals. Full descriptions and some analysis. Chapters on Show Boat, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, with summary coverage of other shows and the era. Provides good contexts and readably traces the rise of the mature and classic musical. Illustrated, and indexed, with data on shows.
  • Mordden, Ethan. Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Focuses on Oklahoma! in a discussion of the development of the Broadway intergrated book musical. Includes a chapter on the cast album. Index.

  • Richard Rodgers: Fact Book, with Supplement. New York: Lynn Farnol Group, 1968. Full of data on each show: casts, spin-off companies, outlines of the action, song titles, and film and television versions. Indispensable. Reviews of openings and revivals included.
  • Riggs, Lynn. Green Grow the Lilacs. In Best American Plays, 1918-1958, edited by John Gassner. New York: Crown, 1961. The most easily available source of the original play. Very useful to see what Rodgers, Hammerstein, and de Mille had to work with and what changes they made.
  • Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1975. An inside look paying due attention to techniques, productions, struggles, and successes.
  • Swain, Joseph P. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Serious study of the music of Broadway shows. Although moderately sophisticated technically in its musicological analyses, it can be understood by the lay reader. Interesting insights on Rodgers’s music for Hammerstein’s lyrics in Oklahoma!
  • Wilk, Max. OK! The Story of “Oklahoma!” New York: Applause, 2002. Study of the development of Oklahoma! alongside critical analysis of the musical.

Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo

Porter Creates an Integrated Score for Kiss Me, Kate

Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story

The Sound of Music Captivates Audiences