Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! marked the dawning of a new era in American musical theatre. It also began the most successful songwriting partnership that Broadway has ever seen.
In 1942, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were highly successful, having written musical comedies that were praised for their wit and sophistication. A decade prior, Oscar Hammerstein II enjoyed similar success writing innovative operettas that consistently reshaped the art form. Showboat, his 1927 collaboration with Jerome Kern, is highly regarded as a landmark in American theatre history.
Both Rodgers and Hammerstein, independent of one another, enjoyed a mutual attraction to the Lynn Rigg’s play about life in his native Oklahoma, entitled Green Grow the Lilacs. Hammerstein invited former collaborator Jerome Kern to write the musical with him, but Kern declined. Meanwhile, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were set to pen a musical based on the play. However, Hart eventually bowed out of the project. Inevitably, Rodgers and Hammerstein came to pursue the project together.
Originally entitled Away We Go, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s adaptation was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and choreographed by a then-unknown Agnes de Mille. A premiere engagement took place at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, in March of 1943. The norm at the time was for musicals to cast actors who could sing; however, Rodgers and Hammerstein were adamant about casting the reverse: singers who could act. Although Theresa Helburn, co-director of the Theatre Guild, suggested Shirley Temple as Laurey and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim, the composers -- along with the support of director, Rouben Mammoulian -- insisted that more dramatically appropriate actors be cast.
Due to the lack of “star-power” and the fact that Hammerstein had written six flops in a row, expectations for the show were low. Producer Mike Todd famously walked out after just one act, exclaiming “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” However, the audience enthusiasm in New Haven gave Rodgers and Hammerstein the confidence to push forward with the project.
Only a few changes were made before moving the show to Broadway, but they were significant. One number, entitled “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” was cut, and a number about the land, originally slated as a duet between Laurey and Curly, became a rousing company number called “Oklahoma.” The number became so successful that the decision was made to add an exclamation point to the title, as well as make it the new title.
Oklahoma! debuted at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in March of 1943. At the time, the longest-running Broadway musical had run for just three years. Oklahoma! came to surpass that record, running for five years and 2,212 performances. A subsequent national tour of the United States played over the next unprecedented 10 and a half years. In December 1943 Decca Records released the original Broadway cast recording of Oklahoma!, marking the first time a musical was recorded complete with its original cast, chorus, and orchestra.
In 1947, Oklahoma! opened at the Theatre Royal in London, where it ran for 1,548 performances, the longest run of any show in the theatre's 267 year history. In 1953 the Oklahoma State Legislature named “Oklahoma!” the official state song.
In 1955 a highly successful motion-picture adaptation was released, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
After their success with Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II would go on to write such musical theatre classics as Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.
A 1998 West End revival, which starred Hugh Jackman as Curly, was highly successful. A DVD featuring the West End cast was released shortly after. Owing to the success of the production, producers were in talks to move the cast to Broadway. However the deal fell through when Actors Equity insisted that the Broadway revival would have an American cast. The U.S. revival eventually opened at the Gershwin Theatre on March 21, 2002. Only two of the original London cast remained, including Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey and Shuler Hensley as Jud.