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Choral Notes: Happy 70th Anniversary to Oklahoma! (The Musical and the Song)
As a native Oklahoman and former "Sylvie" in my high school's production of Oklahoma!, there is no sweeter sound than the joyous shouts and celestial harmonies of the massive hit 8-part chorus number during the second act of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first smash musical. As a confirmed choir nerd, arranger Robert Russell Bennett is the star of my heart. Here's why...
How the number came to be
Less than three weeks before the show's Broadway debut, the musical was still called Away We Go! This was a Colonial Theatre program (Boston, Mass.) dated Mar. 15, 1943:
From Wikipedia: "Expectations for the show were low; Hammerstein had written six flops in a row, and the show had no star power. Producer Mike Todd walked out after the first act during the tryout and wisecracked "No legs, no jokes, no chance." But Rodgers and Hammerstein were confident. The New Haven audiences and then Boston critics were enthusiastic. Only a few changes were made before it opened on Broadway, but two would prove significant: the addition of the show-stopping musical number, Oklahoma! and the decision to retitle the musical after that number.Todd had been wrong, the show opened to raves from the critics, sold out and won a special Pulitzer Prize."
Author Max Wilk interviewed conductor Jay Blackton about the creation of the choral number "Oklahoma!" (Oct. 4, 1990) According to Blackton, they called Robert Russell Bennett (who was in New York) while the show was still in Boston to re-work the vocal arrangement of "Oklahoma!" since it was originally just a dance number. On the train to Boston, Russell Bennett wrote the vocal arrangements. Blackton described the Sunday rehearsal [before the Monday opening in Boston] of teaching the new arrangement to everyone:
"And here I was at the piano with Russell's arrangement on my stand plunking out the parts... But the second half of Oklahoma, the fancy part with all those counter melodies and so on, I had to teach them by rote. Well, fortunately in my experiences over the years I had worked with choruses and knew the best way to do it. So it was just a matter of plunking tediously, patiently, giving them these notes. And it wasn't easy."
Hours later, thanks to Reuben Mamoulian's staging and Agnes De Mille's genius "triangle effect" for the chorus, this eleven 'o clock number became a smash hit. Shortly after, Away We Go! was renamed Oklahoma!
The ripple effect
March 31, 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of Broadway's opening night of Oklahoma! at the The Theatre Guild. I can't imagine what it must have felt in the audience, listening to the songs for the first time. Wow...
An original cast recording of the music soundtrack (25th anniversary edition: featuring Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm, Lee Dixon, Howard de Silva, etc. of the opening night cast) is available in the catalog (*LZR 20842 or *LZR 20261).
Whether you are a Broadway baby (1943, revivals 1951, 1979 and 2002) or a film buff (1955 film, DVD 782 O), we got a plethora of Oklahoma! books, recordings, videos and digital images in our catalog to whet your appetite, either rare and commercial :).
Speaking of recordings (and eventual books), author Max Wilk interviewed the players, creators, and behind-the-scenes individuals who were still alive from the original 1943 Broadway production in 1990-1991 for his book: OK!: the story of "Oklahoma!" (1993, rev. c2002), including Alfred Drake (Curly), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie), dancers Bambi Lynn, George Church, Marc Platt and Kate Friedlich, choreographer Agnes de Mille (fascinating interview), assistant choreographer Vivian Smith Shiers and her husband Paul Shiers (vocalist), former Theatre Guild stage manager Elaine Anderson Steinbeck, costume designer Miles White and music conductor Jay Blackton (another thought-provoking interview; see excerpt above).
Wilk also interviewed the key producers, composers/lyricists, directors and choreographers of 1990s Broadway about their own take on the show and how it affected Broadway forever: William Hammerstein (Oscar Hammerstein II's son and Broadway producer), Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Larry Fuller, and Mary Hunter Wolf (theater director who personally knew Lynn Riggs, author of Green grow the lilacs, which Oklahoma! is based on) Casting director John Fearnley was the only one of Wilk's interviewees that talked about the 1955 film.
These interviews are now available in the catalog (*LDC 52486-52502); some include transcripts.
A final note
For the first time in American musical history, songs and music were completely intergrated with the plot of the story and the movement of the dance. It is virtually impossible to take a song from Oklahoma! and put it into another musical to pass it off as anything else. Each individual song, a gem among themselves, engages whoever is lucky enough to listen to it.
And the rousing chorus number "Oklahoma!" rules all. Thanks to Rodgers & Hammerstein, Russell Bennett and Blackton, my home state got a fabulous state song in 1953. Thank you, y'all. Thank you!
I wish you a very happy 70th anniversary :)
Until next time!