Oklahoma! – A New Style of Theatre
Oklahoma! is one of the most important and most influential musicals written in the twentieth century. This play united the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein, who would continue to write many more memorable plays that pushed boundaries of musical theater, and is a classic example of the “book musical” that is still popular today. The duo became theatrical icons and were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for this work in 1944. This play not only told a fascinating story, but joined memorable music with themes and messages through the production. Oklahoma! is still a mainstay of music theater.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II came to work together to create the production of Oklahoma! Before starting to work together, they happened to have lived very similar lives. Each had a father named William, grew up in the same part of New York, and attended the same schools and summer camps. They even went to the same college. Despite the similarities, the two never met because Hammerstein is eight years older than Rodgers. The other main difference is that Hammerstein was discouraged from theater whereas Rodgers was encouraged. They started working together in the early 1940s to produce Oklahoma!
Oklahoma! is based on the book “Green Grow the Lilacs” which depicts the love story of a cowboy, Curly, and farm girl, Laurey, who would never admit their love for each other. The farm help, Jud, asks Laurey to a dance instead of Curly. Laurey agrees to go with Jud but soon realizes he is dangerous. She tries to run away from him, but he follows her to the dance in which they are auctioning a date with each girl to raise money for the new school house. Curly and Jud bid a lot of money but in the end, Curly prevails. Curly proposes to Laurey and they get married. On their wedding night, they are pulled out of the house and placed on a haystack by a bunch of friends, as tradition. However when Jud sees them up there, he sets the bail on fire. While saving Laurey, Curly jumps down onto Jud, who falls on his own knife. After a short trial, Laurey and Curly head off for their honeymoon. The first performance of this play was on March 31st, 1943 in the St. James Theater. No stars were used in this production, which was unusual for the time. These performers were chosen based on their singing skills, not their acting abilities. It ran for 2,212 performances and has continued to remain popular to this day.
The “book musical” style forever changed musical theater. It united plot, music, dance, and conceptualization. This wasn’t the first play to do this, but it was influential in impact. The first play of this genre was Show Boat which was also co-written by Hammerstein. This new style was a change from the typical fluffy comedy to combine book and music to tell a story. This combination allowed a story to be told with goals and emotions, not just laughter. It also used dance as part of the plot, integrating ballet dancers into the performance. American Musicals haven’t been the same since.
The musical Oklahoma! had a tremendous impact on theater; more than any other musical at the time. It created a new style of theater that has been around for more than 50 years. This new style combined plot, music, dance, and conceptualization. It also united the famous duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which created many more brilliant musicals. American theater hasn’t been the same since.