The History of: Broadway and the Musicals that Call it Home

Consisting of 33 miles, or 55 kilometers the Manhattan road known as Broadway is home to many of New York’s treasures. The area its most known for though is the Theatre District that runs from 42nd Street to 53rd Street and emcompesses Times Square, often reffered to as The Great White Way of Broadway. Musical theatre has become synonymous with Broadway and it’s easy to say the art form holds a ginormous presence in all of New York City. Your clearly here because you love the place or at least the shows it gives home to. Whether you’ve listened to Hamilton once or are one of the 7 people alive who have seen Legs Diamond you’d probably like to know a bit more about this whole broadway thing.  So if you’re as ready as I am let's right into it and talk history, of course not the actual road itself though im sure you’re very interested in reading about how the Wickquasgeck (try pronouncing that right) trail eventually came to be known as Broadway, I’ll give you a clue it involves stealing it from the Native Americans. No, I’m sure you’re much more interested in what’s on the streets- it’s many diverse and entertaining musicals! Also occasionally plays but the history of theatre in general is terrible because it actually starts from almost the beginning of time so we’ll just be crash coursing through the history of musical theatre as we know it today. Going from where I believe is a good place to start and showing you how we got to shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Newsies and the chain of ideas and influences that led to the Broadway we know today. So without any further ado. My names Taylor, There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. And this is- The History Of: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

But What Is Oklahoma?

I assume most of you know what Oklahoma! Is, but considering I still have friends that shake their heads when I mention The Music Man I guess I can’t be too sure. Nevertheless Oklahoma! Is a 1943 Broadway musical by American composer Richard Rodgers and American lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, I’ve noticed nobody really names their children after themselves anymore, probably a good thing. You should probably know these two because they are probably the most famous musical theatre duo of all time, let alone possibly one of the most famous duos of all time and definitely some of the most famous in their respected jobs. Bottom line is Rodgers and Hammerstein is a huge name in musical theatre. One we’ll definitely focus on a ton in this article, and their show Oklahoma! Is about the Oklahoma territory before its become a state and the lives and romances of the people who live there. You can read a full plot synopsis down below. Right there, just scroll down a bit. It’s really long, has a bunch of parenthesis, you can’t miss it.

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A “Brief” Plot Synopsis of Oklahoma!

Alright, Good you made it. Anyways Its 1906 in the Oklahoma territory and cowman Curly Mclain is just out and about singing about how great a day it’s going to be ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'") as he wanders into Laurey Williams yard to kinda sorta if the two can stop teasing each other ask her to the box social dance that night where they’ll be auctioning off picnic baskets to help raise money for the school house. Laurey upon him finally asking her refuses because he’s waited till the literal day of. Curly tries to persuade her claiming he has the best ride money can buy and she should just imagine what it would be like going with him in it ("The Surrey with the Fringe on Top") she continues to tease him though and Curly getting frustrated tells her he made the whole thing up, this upsets Laurey and she forces him away unaware he actually has rented such a ride. When the farm hand Jud Fry asks Laurey out for the social she accepts his offer to spite Curly even though she’s somewhat afraid of Jud. Meanwhile Cowboy Will Parker has recently returned from the city with all sorts of news to share (“Kansas City”) He also has won 50$ in a steel roping contest which is what Ado Annie’s father needs Will to possess in order to marry her. However in a blunder he spent all of it in order to buy gifts for Ado Annie and a tube holding scandalous pictures for Ado Annie's father unaware there’s a hidden blade inside of it. Later, Ado Annie confesses to Luarey that she’s been seeing a persian peddler Ali Hakim. Laurey pushes her friend to choose one of them but Annie claims she can’t choose because she loves them both (“I Cain’t Say No”) Laurey and her friends prepare for the box social and when Gertie Cummings a local girl flirts with Curly. Laurey claims to her friends she doesn’t love him. (“Many A New Day”) Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father finds Annie and Hakim together and forces at gunpoint Hakim to agree to marry her, Hakim and a few other towns men are very outraged by this (“It’s an Scandal! It’s an Outrage”) Then Laurey tries to convince both herself and Curly that the two aren’t in love (“People Will Say We’re In Love”) hurt by Laureys refusal Curly goes off to find the guy she is going with and... convince him to kill himself?!? Wait hold on is that right? Thatt cannot be right. No, No Yeah that’s right. Curly actually tries to convince Jud because he’s not appreciated and no one really likes him he should hang himself and taht way people would care about him after he was dead and the song of course is appropriately titled (“Poor Jud Is Dead”) Like Curly, I get it rejection is hard but isn’t that a bit far. That’s like JD levels of overreaction. Anyways, Laurey not sure whether she should go with Jud or Curly purchases a “magic potion” which is actually a form of opium and has a dream about it. In the dream she is about to marry Curly and when her veil is uncovered Jud is standing in front of her. She realizes Jud would be a terrible husband and then Curly comes back to defend her and then Jud kills him. Laurey wakes up just for Jud to stroll on by and pick her up for the social. There's a fun square dance in which everyone realized the Farmer and the Cowman who tension is high between should just be friends ("The Farmer and the Cowman") Ali Hakim in an effort to rid himself of Ado Annie buys all of Wills souvenirs from him for 50$ and Jud buys the viewer with the hidden blade from him. Will then bids all of his 50$ on Ado Annie’s basket leaving the peddler to have to bid 51$ so Will can marry Ado Annie. Jud and Curly both compete for Laureys basket, Jud bidding his entire life savings and Curly bidding everything he needs to be a cowman, his horse, his saddle, and his gun. Curly wins the auction and later Will and Ado Annie have a conversation about staying faithful to each other (“All Er Nuthin”) Jud tries to discreetly kill him with the hidden blade. Aunt Eller stops this and Jud goes off to see Laurey. They have an unpleasant conversation and when Laurey feels uncomfortable with Jud she fires him and orders him off her property. Jud leaves and Laurey runs to Curly afraid of what Jud might do next but Curly promises to protect her (“People Will Say We’re In Love (Reprise)”) The peddler bids Ado Annie goodbye telling her Will is the man she should marry. Three weeks later, Curly and Laurey are married and the territory finally becomes a state (“Oklahoma!”) Hakim returns with his new wife Gertie who he was once again forced by shotgun to agree to marry and a drunken Jud returns and harasses Laurey. He and Curly get into a fist fight with Jud ultimately falling on his knife and dying. There’s a quick trial where Curly is found “Not Guilty!” by means of self defense.and he and Laurey ride off to their honeymoon in a surrey with fringe on the top (“Finale Ultimo”)

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein before Oklahoma!

Okay, So now if you’re still here you know full well the story of Oklahoma! And obviously that synopsis doesn’t do it justice. I’d still try to go see it for yourself of watch the 1955 movie. Actually you can go do that right now. Go on, you can walk away and watch it and I’ll still be here when you get back. It really is great piece of classic cinema, We’ll talk about it later obviously...Oh are you back? Ok, by now you know full well the story and it might be surprising to you that this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show together. They were in now way new to broadway though, not at all. In fact by 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were already veterans to the broadway scene. Rogers having notably worked on Pal Joey in 1940 and Hammerstein having worked on Show Boat in 1927. A show we will definitely talk about later. They weren’t huge world known names  yet either. Because before Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were simply Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, well to be fair Rogers was Rodgers and Hart but that doesn't matter yet. Going back to the very very beginning Richard Rogers was born to Mamie and Dr. William Abrahams Rodgers in Arverne, Queens, New York City. He began piano at age six and composed some of his first songs in his teenage years. He studied at Columbia University where he eventually transferred to the Institute of Musical Art now known as Juliard and in 1919 Rogers met Lorenz Hart, there you see Rodgers and Hart now it matters. The two of them over the next couple of years went on to write several mediocre musical comedies struggling in that field. However eventually they broke out Rogers having said to have believed the song “Manhattan” made their names known. They worked on more broadway shows and also worked in Hollywood looking for greener pastures however their last show, By Jupiter marked the ending of Rodgers and Hart partnership and the beginning of something much bigger. On the other hand Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II was born in New York City, the son of Alice Hammerstein (née Nimmo) and theatrical manager William Hammerstein. His father though a theatrical person was opposed to is son going into the arts and pushed him to study law at Columbia University. When he was 19 his father died of Bright’s disease. After his father's death  he went on to write and star in several shows eventually making it to broadway with first musial, Always, You. Throughout the next 40 years he collaborated with many people doing lyrics and book writing the huge theatrical breakthrough that is often credited as the first book musical, Show Boat which would lead to the creation of Oklahoma! Among all of those collaborations though was his most famous, Richard Rodgers


 

The Dirt Road To Oklahoma!

The idea for Oklahoma came about when The Theatre Guild produced Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow The Lilacs. The play was rather unsuccessful however ten years later Theresa Helburn co director of the guild saw a production done with folk music and square dances seeing it she had the idea to revive the struggling guild using a musical of the play. She contacted Rodgers and Hart who were interested in doing it. Rodgers asked Hammerstein as well to collaborate in the process who had said a few years earlier in By Jupiters if Hart were unavailable to work he would gladly step in and soon Rogers decided to take Hammerstein up on his offer after Hart overcome by alcoholism and no desire to write anymore forced the two to split paths. Rodgers and Hammerstein was born and the two worked incredibly well together.They both preferred to write lyrics before music and the new risky partnership proved to be a success as the two frequently agreed with each other and decided to an incredibly innovative move that music should dictate the source material, a change from the usual style of the time. They both got to work and soon Lynn Rigg’s Green Grow The Lilacs started to turn into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, Away We Go?

 

From Territory To State

Yes, the show wasn’t given the name, Oklahoma! Until right up into its opening on Broadway.It was originally titled Away We Go. A lot less memorable isn’t it? Once the show had its music layed down and its story ready to be performed the two got to work on casting it and bringing the whole thing to life. Roles in musicals at the time were generally filled by actors who could sing but Rodgers and Hammerstein instead chose to cast singers who would act. Director Theresa Helburn suggested they cast Shirley Temple as Laurey, and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein pushed for performers more appropriate to the show as a result no stars were cast, a very unusual thing at the time.The show ended up being choreographed by Agnes de Mille a ballet choreographer who never had worked on broadway up until them. Agnes de Mille decided to cast dancers based on talent rather than looks another very unusual and innovative thing for time. She also added in one of the shows most famous features, The act 1 finale or The Dream Ballet. The show opened with out of town tryouts at New Havens, Shubert Theatre on March 11th, 1943, expectations were low with the musical not being a comedy and Hammerstein having worked on 5 flops in a row. After the number, “Oklahoma!” was added which also gave the show opened on March 31st 1943 and despite review initially being just fair. Oklahoma on broadway was an unexpected and unprecedented hit.

 

Oklahoma! To Broadway and Beyond

The musical soon was frequently sold out with enormous lines in order to buy tickets. Never had a musical became so successful as Oklahoma! In a time where the most successful musicals ran 400-500 performances, Oklahoma! By the end of its 5 year run had done 2,212 performances. It wasn’t until My Fair Lady in 1956 a show beat it out for longest running musical. It still stands today as the 31st longest running broadway show of all time. It was safe to say Oklahoma was a smash hit. Originally consisting of Alfred Drake as Curly, Joan Roberts as Laurey, Celeste Holm as Ado Annie, Howard Da Silva as Jud Fry, Betty Garde as Aunt Eller, Lee Dixon as Will Parker, and Joseph Buloff as Ali Hakim. Just one year later the first of several National US Tours began and in 1945 the US sponsored the show to perform for troops in the war, The show had the first of 4 broadway revivals in 1951 and another just two years later in 1953 for the tenth anniversary. A production also opened in the West End in 1947 being the first postwar wave of musicals to reach the West End. There was then another broadway revival in 1979 at The Palace Theatre which was directed by William Hammerstein, Oscars son. The show also had two West End revivals one in 1980 and 1998 this cast featured little known at the time Hugh Jackman as Curly Mclain who would go on to star as The Wolverine and eventually return to musicals with Les Miserables and The Greatest Showman. There have also been many London tours. Another Broadway revival opened in 2002. The show has also been done in Japan as well as in Sand Springs, Oklahoma The Discoveryland theatre would show the musical nightly over summers from 1977 until 2011 eventually causing Mary Rogers and William Hammerstein to designate the theatre the, “National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!”

Oklahoma also had a film adaption in 1955, seven years after the original broadway production though it was produced with Samuel Goldwyn it was the first movie musical of its time where direction was in complete control of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The movie was one of the firsts to be shot in Todd-AO. The film omitted the songs “Lonely Room” and “It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!” and sensored several lyrics to pass movie ratings. It went on to win 3 oscars for Best Music, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Sound.  Between being the first musical to have a record released with the original broadway cast, the incredible success of both the musical and the movie. Oklahoma! Went for a critics choice for failure to the biggest musical of its day but it did a lot more than just acquire fame. It expanded on the previous idea of a book musical set down by shows like Show Boat And created a new standard, a new artform all together- Musical Theatre.

 

The legacy of Oklahoma! 75 year later

I’ve set out to show you the history of musical theatre and to start anywhere else would be silly. Although the credit for the first book musical typically goes to Show Boat, Oklahoma! Is the breakthrough of everything happening in theatre in the 1930-30’s. I’ve mentioned before a lot about war and it should be a friendly reminder that when Oklahoma opened it was only two years past Pearl Harbour and America entering the war. A time marked with The Great Depression and people looking for an escape within the theatre from the struggles of everyday life, was coming to an end and even though these problems and more loomed over people’s head. It was time for America to grow up and face its problems head on and that’s all the same for musical theatre. I know when I mention Oklahoma! It certainly doesn’t come to mind as a serious play, but for the time it was. It came down simply to Oklahoma! wasn’t a comedy. When Jud threatened to kill Curly it wasn’t for laughs it was real. There were real stakes and real drama and the music and dance rather than show off for the audience reflected that. It was used simply to drive forward the plot. When Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to put the source material first and work off of that it was maybe the best decision they ever made. The book musical, a thing that thankfully nowadays doesn’t even need to be said was finally here to stay. Rodgers and Hammerstein would go on to make some of the most well known broadway musicals of all time like Carousel and The Sound Of Music. Hammerstein would go on to mentor another well known composer Stephen Sondheim. They worked on countless shows and helped establish a new artform known as musical theatre. Oscar Hammerstein II died on August 23rd 1960 and Richard Rogers died on December 30th, 1979. There legacy is unfathomable and some would argue they are the best Broadway composers of all time. Oklahoma! though nowadays perceived as an old out of date musical is maybe one of the most inspirational and important musicals of all time. Oklahoma! and definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein helped created musical theatre. It’s possible to argue that without them no musicals today would exist and Broadway would look a lot different. Agnes de Mille helped tear down the chorus line by being one of the first to cast by talent instead of looks. The dream ballet was used quite a bit throughout shows after Oklahoma though isn’t used much anymore. Oklahoma this year is 75 years old. It celebrated the anniversary of its opening night 5 days ago and still 75 years on its frequently performed and a staple of the golden age of Broadway. To most it issued in the golden age of Broadway. The show led to the creation of many others that would go on to inspire those after it and through that line we eventually get to today and what broadway looks like now. We’ll continue down that line by discussing a show that took large amounts of inspiration from Oklahoma! And went on to inspire countless musicals of its own, all that and more Next time on. The History Of: Broadway And The Musicals That Call It Home

 

Heres three quick little Oklahoma facts that I didn’t get the chance to discuss

-The song “Oklahoma!” is in fact the state song of Oklahoma

-There are a lot of parodies of Oklahoma in popular culture, I will leave you to look those up

-For a very long time the peddler Ali Hakim was played by a white man, although its said multiple times he’s persian. That's the 40’s for you and basically every era up until the civil rights movement.

Do you want to go see Oklahoma! now? Not sure where it’s playing? Well luckily for you I might have a solution

The Marriott Theatre in Illinois April 11 - June 10, 2018- http://www.marriotttheatre.com/

Derby Dinner Playhouse in Kentucky April 11th - May 27th, 2018 https://derbydinner.com/show/oklahoma/

Iowa State University April 5th - April 8th http://www.theatre.iastate.edu/

Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota July 13th - July 29th  https://www.blackhillsplayhouse.com/

Bauxite High School in Arizona April 13th - April 15th 2018

Fort Frye High School in Ohio May 10th - May 12th

Even more listed at http://www.rnh.com/more-productions.html?item_id=OK



Hint for the next article:

Our next musical recently had a high school version premier at the International Thespian Festival last year. What musical am I talking about? Hope you can find out, until then shout a yipeekayay! Your doing fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma, Yeow!


 

Picture credits- Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein: A Concord Music Company, www.rnh.com