Theatre yesterday and today



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This past weekend marked the 75th anniversary of the opening night at the St. James Theatre of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! A musical classic of the first order, it's hard today to measure the impact it had on audiences back in 1943—what with American deeply immersed in World War II. It's honest depiction of a simpler time, and its characters deep-seated love of home and hearth, were exactly what was needed while people were dealing with the heartbreak of loved ones dying halfway around the world, seemingly on a daily basis.

The original cast of Oklahoma!: Lee Dixon (Will Parker), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie), Alfred Drake (Curly), Joan Roberts (Laurey)—unknown actor in hat—Betty Garde (Aunt Eller) and Joseph Buloff (kneeling, as Ali Hakim).

In 1931, Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs opened under the auspices of the Theatre Guild at its Guild Theatre (now the August Wilson). The play ran briefly, and told a simple story about settlers in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. The Guild, a powerhouse producing organization since its inception in 1919, would eventually mount 228 shows over the course of its half-century legacy. The world premieres of Shaw's Heartbreak House and Saint Joan; O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra and Ah, Wilderness!, and the Gershwin's Porgy and Bess were a few of their prestige productions. But by 1943, the year Oklahoma! opened, a number of financial failures (Porgy and Bess among them) had made a sizable dent in the Guild's coffers, as prestige often does not equal box office.

Call it fate, but two years prior, Teresa Helburn, one of the Guild's lead producers, attended a summer-stock production of Green Grow the Lilacs that intrigued her. It added folk songs and dances (choreography by none other than Gene Kelly), and it gave her the idea that it might be just the thing to transform the failed play into a successful musical. She presented the idea to Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, as they wrote one of the Guild's first produced musicals in 1925, The Garrick Gaieties (also the very first one written by the newly minted team). Rodgers took to the idea of musicalizing Lilacs immediately, but his partner did not. At the time, Rodgers and Hart still had a committed working relationship, but Hart's drinking had been slowly killing it for years. Begging off the new show, Hart gave his blessing for Rodgers to collaborate with Oscar Hammerstein II, who himself was in need of redemption. A true pioneer of the American musical, Hammerstein had written every style of show during the preceding two decades, with such composers as Otto Harbach, Vincent Youmans, Rudolph Friml, Sigmund Romberg and most significantly with Jerome Kern on the groundbreaking Showboat (1932). When the offer came to work with Rodgers, Hammerstein had been coming up short on hits for ten years, all the while hoping one would come close to matching his work on Showboat. Little did the two men know just how important this first time effort was going to further their artistic goals and reputations.

Scenic designer Lemuel Ayer’s beautiful backdrop for the original Oklahoma! (1943).

Teresa Helburn's other great contribution as producer was her idea to engage Agnes de Mille to create the dances for Away We Go (as Oklahoma! was then originally titled). Having caused a stir with her Western-themed work on the Aaron Copland dance music for Rodeo, de Mille proved to be the perfect choice, not only for her artistry, but for her ability to work outside the lines of traditional theatre dance.

The director hired was Rouben Mamoulian, who had left Broadway for Hollywood some six years earlier, amassing to his credit during that time such hit films as Golden Boy, The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand. No shrinking violet, this tough and strong-willed Armenian immigrant, was also a respected theatre veteran, who had not only staged the Guild's Porgy and Bess, but also its original incarnation, DuBois Heyward's Porgy, upon whose play the musical was based.

Agnes de Mille and Rouben Mamoulian, two visionaries

(with tough personalities that went along with it)

The cast brought together for Oklahoma! was, in hindsight, a