Oklahoma! Is Still Okay
Let’s set the stage, shall we?
The date is March 31, 1943 – less than 16 months from the Day that lived in Infamy. The scene is the St. James Theatre on 44th Street in New York. The house is not full. Celebrated musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers is about to launch his first show in more than a quarter of a century without his longtime collaborator, Larry Hart. For this production, he has teamed for the first time with a down on his luck lyricist named Oscar Hammerstein II, who hadn’t had a hit song in…well, a really long time.
Money was tight and investors were scarce (there was a war going on, remember). While the team of Rodgers & Hart had been the toast of the town for over two decades, this new collaboration of Rodgers & Hammerstein was an untested, unknown commodity. And this new show was about Cowboys and Plowboys. It was based on a stage play (Green Grow the Lilacs) which had closed after a paltry 62 performances – not exactly a flop, but nothing to inspire unbridled optimism either. It didn’t even have a murder in it, for cryin’ out loud. A show has to have a murder if it’s going to be hit on Broadway, right? How was it possibly going to succeed?
And to make matters worse, there were no “Name” actors to draw a crowd. Alfred Drake who? Celeste Holm who?
Then the curtain went up. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! ran for 2,248 performances, including over 40 special matinees for members of the armed forces – five years and nine months on Broadway, setting a record that would stand unbroken until My Fair Lady finally eclipsed it 1961. It played to nearly 5 million people during the original run, and to over 10 million in its first national road tour, which lasted more than a decade. The show, which required an initial investment of $83,000 turned a profit of $5 million during its first ten years, and Rodgers & Hammerstein were awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for the show in 1944.
Perhaps a murder wasn’t required after all.
The passage of more than 70 years has done little to dim the luster of the show that respected theatre critic Thomas Hischak called, “…the single most influential work in the American musical theatre.” Theatre companies across the country and around the world continue to stage productions of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! In the month of September alone, the show will go up on stages in Dallas, Texas; Fredericksburg, Virginia; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Carlsbad, California; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Baxter Springs, Kansas; Augusta, Georgia; Longmont, Colorado and Smyrna, Tennessee.
“Oklahoma! was the Hamilton of its day,” says Nathan Owen, who is directing the musical for middle Tennessee-based Springhouse Theatre Company. “Rodgers & Hammerstein went out on an artistic limb, re-imagining what musical theatre could be. The result was an innovative, groundbreaking production that not only was a monster hit in its day, but one that has stood the test of time. Yes, there are some folks who think it is old hat, or past its prime. But I think there are far more theatre-goers who simply love the show; and that love extends far beyond nostalgia for the good old days. A case in point is our cast, many of whom are young actors who turned down roles in more contemporary hit shows, just to be a part of our production of Oklahoma!”
Charlotte Myhre, who plays the slightly ditzy Ado Annie, was drawn by the opportunity to expand her repertoire of roles. “Annie is a really interesting, richly-drawn character, far more than many people give her credit for,” Myrhe says. “On the surface she comes across as naïve, as if she doesn’t understand that there could be negative consequences to her actions, but that’s because she believes so strongly in the innate goodness of the people around her. She can’t imagine that the people she considers to be friends would ever do her harm. I’ve never played a role like her. I often get cast as the ingénue, but Annie is straight-up comic relief character. Playing her really gives me the opportunity to break out of my shell.”
For Carter Wright, who plays the hapless cowpoke Will Parker, the opportunity to do a big show on a main stage with lots of dancing was the main draw. “Lately I’ve done a number of smaller, more intimate shows, which is great, but I really missed the large-cast, big production stuff. For me, Oklahoma! is a fresh musical. I’ve never done a Rodgers & Hammerstein show before, so it’s like getting to be a part of theatre history. It’s all fresh and new. It’s a lot of intense, hard work. It’s a challenging show, but it’s been a great experience.”
Cavender Lane hopes to bring a bit of humanity to the villainous role of Jud Fry. “Poor Jud is dead,” he muses. “I hope to add sufficient depth to the character, so the folks who see the show might experience a tinge of sadness in their hearts when they hear that phrase.” Not that Lane expects the audience to mourn for too long. “Jud is not a wonderful person,” he admits. “But bad guys are just so much fun to play; the emotions that drive them are so complex and so intense!
Catherine Birdsong takes on the role of Laurey. “Oklahoma! is a story about dreaming big, and having faith in those dreams and in the people around you, who may be different from you,” she says. “By working together and not losing heart, even really big dreams can come true. Laurey is strong and brave, and sometimes her dreams seem so big. I love that! I love working in an environment where I can use my professional background to uplift some of the newer actors; and there are people in the cast who have different skill sets that uplift and encourage me. It is that sense of community that drew me to this production.”
For Allison Hall who inhabits the role of Aunt Eller, this production feels like something of a theatrical homecoming. “Oklahoma! was one of my first experiences with musical theatre, and I love it,” she says. “It is not an ‘old show’ to me. In fact, it is completely unique; different from pretty much every other musical that I’ve ever seen. The story is interesting, I love the music, and quite frankly, it’s just so much fun! Playing Aunt Eller is quite a stretch for me. For one thing, Aunt Eller is considerably older than I am, and it was a challenge to learn how to ‘play older.’ But personality-wise, I think I have a lot in common with her. She’s outgoing, blunt, no-nonsense, fearless and straight to the point; the kind of woman you would have to be to survive the frontier. I like her!”
For Cameron Gilliam, Curly has long been a dream role. “I love Curly’s quick wit and tendency to say things without really saying them, if you know what I mean,” Gilliam says. “The great thing about Oklahoma! is that it is old school musical theatre. These kinds of shows are so well written, but so often are so poorly produced. As an actor, you really want to know what you’re getting into before you sign on. The choreographer is a good friend of mine, but what really sold me on the show was the director. I knew within 10 seconds of meeting him that I wanted to be in this production. I love the way it is being developed and directed here. You know you’ve got a great show on your hands when you are surrounded by a team of great storytellers!”
The 1940s are often hailed as the Golden Age of Musical Theatre and with good reason. It is the decade that produced such staples of the stage as Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, South Pacific, Carousel and Showboat. But the granddaddy of them all is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! More than 70 years after that first not-sold-out performance, Oklahoma! is still – Okay!
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma opens Springhouse Theatre Company’s 2016-2017 season, with performances September 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24 & 25. For tickets or more information visit http://springhousetheatre.com/current-season/oklahoma/