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Story Behind “Oklahoma” As Musical Nears 75th Anniversary

It’s easy to see why theater insiders questioned in 1943 whether the new musical that composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein brought to Broadway would be a success.

Hammerstein’s prior six shows had been flops.

The 1931 Lynn Riggs play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” on which the musical was based, hadn’t been well-received.

The creators cast “Oklahoma” without any box-office stars that could help sell tickets.

So how did “Oklahoma” become a musical that ran a record-setting five years, has seen numerous revivals and is performed somewhere around the world daily?

As “Oklahoma” approaches its 75th anniversary, Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has an answer: “Because it’s good.”

With the notable exception of Jerome Kern’s 1927 “Showboat” and a handful of other shows, most musicals were light on plot and heavy on show-stopping dance numbers, big production numbers and novelty songs that tended to stop whatever advancement was taking place in the plot.

But not “Oklahoma.” 

"Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, both of whom had worked with other people for fifteen or twenty years in musical theatre and therefore practiced their craft, came together to write this sort of homespun, middle-of-the-country musical. Something about where they had come from and what they had been listening to and doing made them tell this story in ways that took every innovation that anybody had been talking about and simply put them all in this show. This is all one story and every piece in it had an effect on the other pieces,” Chapin said.

“Oklahoma,” as is common with many musicals, had out of town tryouts in New Haven and Boston before heading to Broadway. Two significant changes came before the musical opened in New York’s Shubert Theatre on March 31, 1943.

One of the changes was musical.

“The song “Oklahoma” was originally a two-step. I don’t think we have any material existing from that version of the song. There’s the classical choral arrangement that orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett allegedly wrote on the train between Boston and New York, when the idea was ‘let’s pump that song up a little bit” and really make it a big number at the wedding.”

The other change was the show’s title.

“Away We Go,” (the show’s working name) was not a really great title. ‘Dosey-doe and away we go’ is a square dance kind of thing, so I could see how sophisticated New Yorkers could think ‘that’s all the same thing- square dancing and Oklahoma.”

Changing the show’s name to “Oklahoma,” sprucing up the now title number and having great music and performers helped make the show a huge hit, but Chapin said there was another factor that played a role in musical’s success.

“Even though it wasn’t planned this way, it opened while we were at war. Though on the surface, it might seem to be a simple story of people in a territory not affected by the war, choreographer Agnes DeMille was rather eloquent about the story and the way it was told and the music and dancing that it somehow embodied the country we were fighting for.”

The Musical Theater Project presents “ The Impact of “Oklahoma” Saturday at 7 pm in Elyria’s Stocker Arts Center and Sunday at 3pm in Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre.