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ClassicsOnline Home » RODGERS: Oklahoma! (Original Broadway Cast) (1943)
Sometime after 11:00 pm on 11 March 1943, the
curtain fell at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on
the world première of a new musical entitled
Away We Go!
One of the first people up the aisle was
Rose Bigman, personal secretary to Broadway’s
most feared columnist,Walter Winchell. She
wasted no time in sending a telegram to her
boss telling him what she thought of the show:
‘No legs, no jokes, no chance’,was her nowlegendary
Some sources attribute the remark to
producer Mike Todd, but that isn’t as likely,
because he was spotted leaving during the
show so he could catch an early train back to
The once-mighty Theatre Guild was in a
panic, since this project was all that was
standing between them and bankruptcy. In fact,
they had to chase frantically after investors for
the $100,000 necessary to get this musical onto
It looked like their efforts had been in vain,
because the Gotham ‘wrecking crew’ who had
come up to the opening either joined Todd in
his early departure, or let the Guild know this
latest piece was ‘weak…dull…unappealing’.
But the next day, the newspaper critics were
optimistic, if guarded, and the box office, which
had been empty, started doing brisk business.
Audiences liked this show. It opened the
following week in Boston to even better
reviews and the creative team kept honing and
working down to the wire.
Then on 31 March, the day it was set to
open on Broadway, a freak early spring
snowstorm hit the city and that, coupled with
the low-key feeling about the show in the
theatre community,was responsible for a
première performance filled with empty seats.
But that would be the last time there were
any empty seats for the next five years. The
next morning’s reviews were almost universally
ecstatic and by noon, the box office was under
Oh yes, between Boston and New York, they
had changed the name of their troubled tuner.
It was now called Oklahoma!
Considering the fact that the show is
regarded today as one of the greatest and most
influential musicals of all time, you may find it
hard to imagine how everyone could have been
so wrong about it until you look at these facts.
Composer Richard Rodgers had just been
obliged to end a successful twenty-year
partnership with Lorenz Hart due to the latter’s
alcoholism. No one knew if Rodgers would be
as good with another partner, especially not the
one he had chosen.
Oscar Hammerstein II had once been a great
lyricist/librettist with hits like Show Boat to his
credit, but his work in the past decade had
consisted of nothing but flops and he was
generally perceived as yesterday’s man.
The same thing with director Rouben
Mamoulian. He had once electrified Broadway
with his stagings of the original play Porgy and
its operatic sequel, Porgy and Bess, but he
hadn’t done a legit show in eight years and his
once-soaring film career was in freefall.
Ballet-trained Agnes DeMille had been fired
as choreographer from her first two musicals,
leading man Alfred Drake’s career had stalled
since he did Babes In Arms for Rodgers and
Hart, and high-powered Mary Martin had turned
down the female lead to appear in a show
called Dancing In The Streets (which would
later close in Boston).
The final nail in the coffin was that the
whole project was based on a folksy cowboy
play called Green Grow The Lilacs, which had
only run for two months back in 1931.
Of course it would be a disaster, right?
Well, no one could have counted on two
things. The first was that the partnership
between Rodgers and Hammerstein turned out
to be pure magic.
The work that Rodgers had done with Hart
was jazzy and sophisticated. He always wrote
his music first and Hart set his clever lyrics into
the existing template like some sort of verbal
But Hammerstein liked to create the lyrics
first and he laboured over them for weeks at a
time. He worried about what a character was
feeling, what the dynamics of a scene needed,
not what would make a snappy opening
number for Act II.
His simple poetic images brought out a new
Rodgers, with long, flowing melodic lines and
rich foursquare harmonies. It was a
collaboration that might have fallen on deaf ears
in the Roaring Twenties or the Dirty Thirties, but
as America struggled to get through the Second
World War, it was just what was needed.
That’s the second major factor: timing. The
kind of simple, homespun affirmation that
Oklahoma! offered was balm to the soul of a
nation mired in a war they were starting to
wonder if they could ever win.
The cynical Broadway crowd, obsessed with
nothing more than their own narrow kingdom,
couldn’t see that and felt the show was oldfashioned.
But sometimes, especially in the
world of the musical, everything old is new
Another novelty that Oklahoma! was on the
cutting edge of was the original cast recording.
Decca had actually launched this revolution
with their selections from Porgy and Bess and
This Is The Army. But then the famous ‘Petrillo
Ban’ took place, in which the American
Federation Of Musicians went on strike to
protest the uncompensated use of their work
Decca was so eager to get a recording of
Oklahoma! into the studios while it was still
hot, that it became the first to sign an agreement
with the union in September of 1943. The
album was recorded a month later.
It was released as a series of six 78 discs
and included most of the major songs of the
show, carefully trimmed to suit the roughly
three minutes that a side could accommodate
in those days.
Even in this somewhat strait-laced format,
you can hear the fresh, young charm that
captivated the world. Drake once described
Oh, What A Beautiful Morning as ‘the closest
thing to lieder ever written by an American’,
and he sings it that way, with rich, pure tones.
Joan Roberts’ clear, bright voice soars effortlessly
in numbers like Out of My Dreams,
Celeste Holm remains the most humorously
innocent of all Ado Annies and Lee Dixon has
such easy charm that one can comprehend why
the cast chose to cope with his problem
drinking – as well as the onion sandwiches he
ate to mask the liquor on his breath.
Demand for the original recording of
Oklahoma! was so great that in May of 1944
Decca decided to press another two discs with
the remaining songs. An interesting note from
this release is that Howard DaSilva didn’t record
his big solo as Jud, Lonely Room, but leading
man Drake sang it instead. As the rest of the
songs on this second recording were comedy
numbers featuring non-singers like Joseph
Buloff and Ralph Riggs, it may have been felt
that Drake’s voice would provide a welcome
Decca also capitalized further on
Oklahoma! mania by recording Robert Russell
Bennett’s Symphonic Suite on themes from
the show in August of the same year.
By December of 1944, RCA Victor had
finally settled with the Musicians’ Union as well,
and one of their first recordings was – you
guessed it! – Oklahoma!
They turned to a cast from the Metropolitan
Opera for this version, featuring tenor James
Melton, who had appeared in several 1930s
movie musicals like Stars Over Broadway
before concentrating exclusively on his classical
West Virginia-born soprano Eleanor Steber
was thirty when this recording was made and
about to enter what many consider her ‘golden
years’ as the Met’s leading lady. And baritone
John Charles Thomas began his career on Broadway,
appearing in numerous musical comedies
and operettas with titles like Apple Blossoms
before finally moving to the Met in 1934.
Although no one could have guessed it
when Away We Go! opened so tentatively in
New Haven that March night in 1943, within
the year – once it became Oklahoma! – it
would trigger a whole new fashion in recording
show tunes: from the Original Cast recording,
through the Symphonic Version, right through a
series of operatic covers.
Many A New Day, indeed.
– Richard Ouzounian
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RODGERS: Oklahoma! (Original Broadway Cast) (1943)