Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma! revolutionised musical theatre. Oklahoma! was the first musical that integrated songs, lyrics and dance with the dramatic action of the play. Both song and dance were used to reveal a character’s emotions or to move the plot forward.
Oklahoma! chorus girls, black and white photograph, St. James Theater, New York, United States, 1943. Museum no. RP 91/1925
This photograph shows dancers from the 1943 New York production of Oklahoma!. They are dressed as saloon girls in the dream ballet, which closed the first act. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a stage play by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! brought together for the first time composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. They went on to write nine Broadway musicals together, but none as important for the development of musical theatre as Oklahoma!. Story, song and, especially, the dances choreographed by Agnes de Mille, were fully integrated. For the first time dance was used not as an interlude but, in the dream ballet, to reveal the heroine’s hidden fears and desires. Oklahoma! opened in New York in 1943 and ran for 2,212 performances. When the show opened in London in 1947, its energy and optimism were a tonic for war-weary audiences and it initiated a nine year domination of Drury Lane by Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
Howard Keel as Curly McLain in Oklahoma!, St. James Theater, New York, United States, 1943. Museum no. RP 91/1925
When Oklahoma! opened in London in 1947, its youthful energy and optimism was a huge tonic for war-weary audiences and it initiated a nine year domination of Drury Lane by Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. As in the New York production, the cast were all unknown but the show made them stars. This photograph shows Harold Keel as Curly, the ‘good’ cowboy who eventually wins the love of farmgirl Laurey. He had a huge success and was immediately snapped up by Hollywood on his return to America. Renamed Howard Keel, he became one of MGM’s biggest musical stars in the 1950s. What made Oklahoma! different was that the songs, lyrics and dances all helped move the plot or characters forward. It was considered so revolutionary that Rodgers and Hammerstein had difficulty finding people to put up the money. They were also working together for the first time and backers thought that, without their usual partners (Lorenz Hart for Rodgers and Jerome Kern for Hammerstein), the show didn’t stand a chance.
Howard Keel and Betty Jane Watson as Curly and Laurey in Oklahoma!, St. James Theater, New York, United States, 1943. Museum no. RP 91/1925
This photograph from the 1943 New York production of Oklahoma! shows Howard Keel and Betty Jane Watson as Curly and Laurey, ‘jist married’ at the end of the show. They are peering out of the carriage which is the subject of one of Oklahoma!’s most famous songs: ‘The Surrey With the Fringe On Top’. Oklahoma! brought together for the first time composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/ librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, who would go on to write nine smash hit musicals together. It opened on Broadway in 1943 with a cast of unknowns playing out the simple plot about which of two hopeful young men would take farmgirl Laurey to the local dance. It seemed an insubstantial thing, which would disappear fairly quickly. However, it was a revolutionary musical in that for the first time the songs, lyrics and dances weren’t simply interludes in the plot. They all contributed to moving the story or characterisations forward. Oklahoma! was also the first show to have an ‘original cast’ recording made, so starting another trend.
The Auction scene in the musical Oklahoma!, black and white photograph, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1947
The burning question in Oklahoma! is who will take Laurey Williams to the box social (the local dance) - the decent Curly McLain or the sinister Jud Fry. It is set against the background of Oklahoma's attempts to be recognised as a state (which it finally achieved in 1907, celebrated in the rousing title-song), and the arguments between the farmers and the cowboys about who has the greater claim to the land. This scene, from the 1947 London production, is one of high drama within the bounds of the plot. At the box social the men bid to buy the picnic 'boxes' prepared by the girls – with the girl's company thrown in. Curly and Jud get into a bidding war over Laurey's basket which spirals out of control. Here Curly, played by Howard Keel, offers to sell his saddle, which he needs to make his living as a cowboy, in order to match Jud's bid of his life's savings.